No taste when I have a cold

Originally Published: December 22, 2000 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: August 10, 2012
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Dear Alice,

Why is your favorite food very tasteless when you have a cold?

Dear Reader,

As if a runny nose, coughing, and a sore throat weren't bad enough, you and millions of others coping with a cold can't even savor the flavor of homemade chicken soup. Your inability to taste anything when you have a cold is closely related to all the sniffling that keeps you inside and under the blankets.

While the tongue has thousands of taste buds to measure the four primary tastes — salty, sour, sweet, and bitter — the olfactory receptor cells at the top of the nasal cavity measure the odors that provide you with the sumptuous (or not so sumptuous) flavors associated with certain foods. The sense of smell is actually responsible for about 75 percent of what is typically thought of as the sense of taste. So if your nasal passage is blocked by mucus that keeps you sniffling and sneezing, your olfactory receptor cells aren't being visited by those odors. This leaves everything tasting pretty much the same.

When you have a cold your nasal passages become inflamed and produce excess mucus that can make you feel stuffed up. Keeping your nasal passages and sinuses moist can help decrease congestion.  Using a humidifier, taking long showers, drinking lots of fluids, or using a saline nasal spray can all help to ease congestion. You can also irrigate your nasal cavity with salt-water or use warm compresses on your face. Over the counter medications like decongestants or antihistamines can help too.

If your symptoms become severe or last more than a week, it’s recommended that you speak to your primary care provider. Columbia students can call x4-2284 or log on to Open Communicator to make an appointment. Fortunately, colds normally go away within a few days, regardless of treatment.

Try to look on the bright side: if you can’t taste, it makes taking those unpleasant cold medicines much more bearable.