Can COPD Cause a Loss of Smell and Taste?
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is actually a group of diseases. These diseases cause breathing-related problems and airflow blockage. While tobacco use is a main cause of the disease, other causes can include genetic factors, air pollutants, and infections.1
Common symptoms can include:1
- Frequent coughing or wheezing
- Excess phlegm or mucus
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty taking a deep breath
A lesser-known effect of COPD can be altered senses of smell and taste.
Smell and taste with COPD
Weight loss is common in people with COPD. Doctors think this is related to changes in the way things taste and/or smell. When the sense of taste or smell is impaired or changed, food is not as appealing. In turn, people tend to eat less.2
Researchers once thought that the nasal cannulas that supply oxygen were affecting smell and taste in people with COPD. A nasal cannula is a tube that splits into 2 prongs and is then placed in the nostrils. A mix of air and oxygen flow from the tube. However, researchers found that nasal cannulas were not a factor in impaired taste and smell.2,3 Instead, the researchers discovered that smell and taste were impaired by smoking, as well as some medicines.2,3
How does COPD cause a loss of smell and taste?
Although many people with COPD do have impaired smell and taste, the COPD itself is not the cause of the impaired senses. Smoking has been linked to both impaired taste and smell.4
There are more than 4,000 toxic substances in cigarette smoke. When the tissues we use to taste and smell are exposed to these elements, they can become injured. These effects can be temporary or permanent. The severity of the injury is related to the exposure to the smoke and the concentration of the tobacco. If you have smoked for a long period of time, it is more likely that you may have problems with taste and/or smell.4
Medication, nutrition, and age
Not everyone with COPD smokes or has smoked. Certain medicines used in COPD can also affect one's taste. Bronchodilators, which are drugs to help open airways, can alter taste. These can also cause a dry mouth and a bitter taste. A dry mouth can change sensitivity to taste and change how things taste.2
People with COPD often have nutritional deficiencies because of the changes in their eating. These deficiencies are often linked to changes in taste and smell. Nutritional deficiencies can also contribute to changes in how food tastes.5
Taste and smell can also change as you get older. As you age, your sense of smell may fade a bit. Gum disease or issues with dentures can also affect taste in some people.6
How is this treated?
Pulmonary rehabilitation (PR) has been found to help people living with COPD who have impaired taste. This involves exercise training, including walking, stair climbing, and cycling. Before starting any PR program, you must have proper nutrition. If you are malnourished, this needs to be addressed first. This can be done through nutritional supplementation.2,4
Communication with your doctor
If you currently smoke cigarettes and would like to stop, talk with your doctor about a smoking cessation program. They can help you create a plan to reduce and then quit your smoking.
Tell your doctor about any changes in smell or taste that you have had. They can check your medicines and perhaps change them to see if that helps. They can also refer you to your dentist to see if there are issues with your gums or dentures that need to be addressed. Together, you can figure out the underlying cause and address it.
If the issues with your smell and/or taste are due to nutritional deficiencies, ask your doctor about seeing a nutritionist or dietitian. They can help you get the nutrition you need, including essential nutrients like thiamin, folate, zinc, and B-12. All of these vitamins can affect taste if you are not getting enough of them.5
Things to consider
Loss of taste and smell with COPD can occur for many different reasons. If you have sensory changes, tell your doctor. They can help find the underlying cause and help provide the right treatment. Treating issues with your smell and taste can improve your quality of life.
Do you live with any sleep disorders (eg. insomnia, RLS, sleep apnea) in addition to COPD?