After Tonsillectomy: Sense of Taste
Taste after tonsillectomy or sense of taste are subjects of much discussion on the tonsillectomy forum. The experience of tonsillectomy has rippling effects upon individuals, beginning with the anticipation of surgery and, hopefully, extending long after surgery in improved quality of life. During the first two weeks of recovery, tonsillectomy patients’ daily lives are turned upside down. The daily diet is often limited to liquids and very smooth, soft foods like gelatin. Narcotic pain medications are usually taken several times per day. Sleep is erratic and often fitful. Activity levels are greatly reduced. When the fog of pain, fatigue, and disruption lifts, one of the first irregularities patients complain of is an altered sense of taste. Let’s take a moment to look at tonsillectomy and its effect on sense of taste.
The American Academy of Otalayngology- Head and Neck Surgery describes how taste sensation works as,
Gustatory (taste nerve) cells are clustered in the taste buds of the mouth and throat. They react to food or drink mixed with saliva. Many of the small bumps that can be seen on the tongue contain taste buds. These surface cells send taste information to nearby nerve fibers, which send messages to the brain.
I suggest that several factors contribute to disturbances in a person’s sense of taste after tonsillectomy. Firstly, tonsillectomy surgery itself can cause bruising to the tongue, where taste buds reside. Most patients complain of tongue pain after surgery.
It’s also likely that the post tonsillectomy diet has an impact on the patient’s sense of taste for some time after recovery. Many experts point out that taste buds are in a constant state of growth. As people eat various rough textured foods, small amounts of tissue scrape off and are replaced by new growth. Many believe that the almost liquid diet of most tonsillectomy patients disrupts this process and thus, affects their sense of taste.
Still another camp holds that deficiency in zinc after tonsillectomy contributes to these taste disruptions. JOSEPH M. BICKNELL, MD and ROBERT V. WIGGINS, MD published in the Western Journal of Medicine in October of 1988. [Bicknell JM, Wiggins RV: Taste disorder from zinc deficiency after tonsillectomy.West J Med 1988 Oct; 149:457460] They followed two tonsillectomy patients who complained of unpleasant taste sensation after tonsillectomy. The patients complained of changes in their sense of taste after tonsillectomy. They used descriptions like, coppery, or metallic when interviewed. Both had these complaints two months after tonsillectomy surgery. The doctors tested liver and thyroid function, as well as hepatitis. All were normal, but serum zinc levels were low in both patients. They were given 220mg zinc supplements twice per day. Within three weeks, the zinc levels were normal. They reported tastes improving after ten days, and after 22 days, the metallic sensation had ended. I’ve read anecdotal accounts on the tonsillectomy forum from people having success with zinc supplements after tonsillectomy. Ask your doctor before trying the zinc supplement for tonsillectomy and sense of taste.
Considering all the variables, one must also consider the effects of both antibiotics and narcotic pain killers over a two week period on the sense of taste. The FDA does not list taste disturbance as a side effect of either penicillin or hydrocodone. (the two most commonly prescribed medications after tonsillectomy in the U.S.) There has been a connection between the use of oral antibiotics and oral thrush, (Fungal infection – mouth; Candida)
It is very common to experience an altered sense of taste after tonsillectomy. Most people feel that their taste returns to normal within three to six weeks. However some may experience unpleasant taste sensation for several months.
It was truly depressing for me that my favorite cocktail, (the bloody Mary), tasted like something from the planet salt for months after surgery. Thankfully, within 5 months, my sense of taste was completely back to normal.