Smell and taste function in childhood cancer patients: a feasibility study

Support Care Cancer. 2021 Mar;29(3):1619-1628. doi: 10.1007/s00520-020-05650-3. Epub 2020 Aug 2.


Purpose: Chemotherapy can affect smell and taste function. This has never been investigated in childhood cancer patients during chemotherapy. The objective of this study was to determine whether psychophysical smell and taste tests are suitable for children with cancer. Taste and smell function, fungiform papillae density, and eating behavior were measured before (T1) and after (T2) a cycle of chemotherapy and compared with healthy controls.

Methods: Thirty-one childhood cancer patients treated for a hematological, solid, or brain malignancy (median age 12 years, 16 girls), and 24 healthy controls (median age: 11 years, 10 girls) participated. Smell function was measured using Sniffin' Sticks, including a threshold, discrimination, and identification test. Taste Strips were used to determine recognition thresholds for sweet, sour, salty, and bitter taste. Papillae density was investigated by counting the fungiform papillae of the anterior tongue. Eating behavior was assessed using the Behavioral Pediatrics Feeding Assessment Scale (BPFAS).

Results: Smell and taste function could be investigated in more than 90% of the patients, while fungiform papillae density could be determined in 61% of the patients. A significant difference in smell threshold was found between patients and controls (p = 0.001), showing lower thresholds in patients. In patients, sweet taste (p < 0.001), bitter taste (p = 0.028), and total taste function (p = 0.004) were significantly different after a cycle of chemotherapy, with higher scores at T2.

Conclusion: The assessment of smell, taste, and fungiform papillae density is feasible in children with cancer. Results of the current study suggest that smell and taste sensitivity increased in children with cancer.

Keywords: Chemotherapy; Childhood cancer; Smell; Taste.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Cancer Survivors
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Child
  • Feasibility Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neoplasms / complications*
  • Neoplasms / mortality
  • Olfaction Disorders / etiology*
  • Taste Disorders / etiology*