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Ear, Nose, and Throat Disorders

Taste After Heart Surgery

12/08/2009

Question:

We have someone in the family that has had a triple bypass, and after 1 week of the operation was getting on fine and starting to eat. They then had an irregular heartbeat which was treated, but since then this awful taste and smell has stopped them eating and drinking all together. Is this common and is there anything we can do to help the taste go away?

Answer:

A loss of smell has been described after open heart surgery, and is thought to be secondary to a small embolus or blood clot that interrupts the blood supply to the delicate neural tissue that enables us to smell.  Sometimes such a loss of smell is associated with a distorted odor perception:  this may be perceived when exposed to external odors, or may occur spontaneously, is probably related to degenerative changes that occurs in this neural tissue, and is usually perceived as unpleasant. 

It is rare to lose one's taste, and I suspect the bad taste perceived by your family member is actually this bad smell.  When we eat, the flavor of food is determined in large part by odors detected from the food, and a bad odor will certainly have a negative impact on flavor. 

Having said all of this, there are other possible causes to this problem, such as an underlying infection and certain medications.  I suggest your family member consider evaluation at a taste and smell clinic.  These are located at approximately 6 or 7 university centers around the country.  Addresses and phone numbers can be readily found online.

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Response by:

Allen M Seiden, MD Allen M Seiden, MD
Professor of Otolaryngology, Director of Division of Rhinology and Sinus Disorders, Director of University Taste and Smell Center, Director of University Sinus and Allergy
College of Medicine
University of Cincinnati