Oral examination findings, taste and smell testing during and following head and neck cancer therapy


Department of Research, Advocate Health Care


PURPOSE: Diet and nutrition are critical in health and disease and are highly impacted by the presence and treatment for head and neck cancer (HNC). The purpose of this paper is to present oral examination findings and taste and smell test results in patients during and following HNC.

METHODS: Patients with HNC were evaluated during and following radiation therapy with/without chemotherapy. Oral examination findings including mucositis, saliva, oral hygiene (plaque levels, gingivitis), and taste and smell testing was completed on all subjects. NCI Common Terminology Criteria for Adverse Events (CTCAE) 4.0, and the Scale of Subjective Total Taste Acuity (STTA) were used to provide patient report of symptoms.

RESULTS: Mucositis and pain affected oral diet during therapy and improved in follow-up. Weight loss of 5% during and 12% following treatment was identified. Tobacco use was associated with increased severity of mucositis and increased weight loss. The subjects maintained excellent oral hygiene as reflected in plaque levels and gingivitis. Spicy/pungent perception was the most strongly disliked of testing stimuli. Umami and fat taste perception were reported of highest intensity during HNC treatment and rated as moderate in intensity after treatment. These results suggest improvement in these taste functions over time following treatment. Salt taste was of high intensity and associated with strong dislike in follow-up.

CONCLUSIONS: In HNC patients, oral status and taste change occurs throughout the cancer trajectory and represent potential concerns in cancer survivorship. Taste change (as evaluated by taste testing) occurred in all HNC patients, whereas olfactory changes occurred in 30% of cases. Management of oral changes and symptoms should be considered in all HNC patients in addition to dietary and nutritional guidance in patient care to promote oral intake. Continuing study of taste changes may further define this problem and support dietary and nutritional guidance and product development.

Document Type


PubMed ID


Link to Full Text