After a stroke, up to a third of people find that their sense of taste or smell changes. This can be upsetting as enjoying food and drink is an important part of life, and taste and smells are closely connected to our feelings and memories. It can also make it harder to eat a healthy diet and reduce the risk of further strokes.
Why has my sense of taste or smell changed?
A stroke happens when the blood supply to part of your brain is cut off, killing brain cells. If a stroke damages the parts of the brain that interpret information about taste and smell from your nose and tongue, it causes changes to your senses of taste and smell. Food might taste different or taste bad (dysgeusia). You may be able to taste fewer flavours (hypogeusia) or none at all (ageusia). Some people lose the sense of smell (anosmia) or become more sensitive to smells (hyperosmia). Medications and tooth or gum infections can also affect your sense of taste or smell.
How might these changes affect me?
If you can’t smell or taste properly, it can reduce your appetite and you might end up eating and drinking less than you need to. Or you might overeat to try to get more satisfaction from food, or crave sweet or salty foods. These issues can stop you eating a balanced diet and impact your recovery. If you’re struggling to eat healthily and stay well hydrated, a dietitian can give you advice – your stroke nurse or GP should be able to refer you for support.
What can I do to make food more tasty?
Tempt your appetite by making your food look bright and fresh. Vegetables like peas, carrots and red peppers can add colour and crunch to your lunch. Use herbs and spices to add flavour to food, but avoid adding salt or sugar as this can increase the risk of stroke. If you’re finding tastes overpowering, try eating food cool rather than hot – this can reduce strong or sweet flavours.
Drinking plenty of fluids, like water, low-sugar drinks, tea and coffee can help get rid of a bad taste in the mouth. Dilute sweet drinks like juice with water, soda or tonic.
If you have any swallowing problems, ask your speech and language therapist for advice before changing what you eat.
Will my sense of taste or smell come back?
Changes to taste or smell can improve over time. Good oral hygiene can help, so make sure you look after your mouth, teeth and gums and visit the dentist regularly. And talk to your GP who can help you find out the cause of the problem and offer treatment and support.
Angela Slevin, 58 from Manchester, lost her sense of taste and smell after a stroke in 2008.
“It’s very frustrating not to be able to taste or smell anything. It’s taken the pleasure away from eating. I used to enjoy going out for meals with my family but now I don’t feel able to do it, as it would spoil it for other people. I try to remember what it was like to taste food, but the stroke has affected my memory too so it’s difficult.
“I know I have to eat and drink. I still cook for myself and I make sure that I eat a balanced diet and have fresh vegetables every day.
“I still go out and see my family, as it’s more important than ever to keep those connections. I also volunteer at the Stroke Association’s Stroke Café. I find it really helpful to meet people in the same situation.”
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Stroke News magazine
This article is featured in the spring 2022 edition of our magazine, Stroke News. Subscribe to our future editions available in print, on audio CD, or via email.