Does your mouth taste like old pennies? Dysgeusia, a change in your sense of taste, can be a side effect of a variety of medical issues. And “metal mouth,” a common manifestation of dysgeusia, is more common than you might think.
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Donald Ford, MD, MBA, Chairman of the Department of Family Medicine at Cleveland Clinic, runs through the reasons why you might be experiencing a metallic taste in your mouth — and what to do about it.
Why does my mouth taste like metal?
A metallic taste can indicate a serious illness, such as kidney or liver problems, undiagnosed diabetes or certain cancers. But these reasons are uncommon and typically accompanied by other symptoms.
If you’re otherwise healthy, the cause for that metallic tang typically is benign. “If a metallic taste in your mouth is your only complaint, the cause might be one of several,” Dr. Ford says.
Poor oral hygiene
If you don’t brush and floss regularly, the result can be teeth and gum problems such as gingivitis, periodontitis and tooth infection. These infections can be cleared up with a prescription from your dentist.
“The metal taste typically goes away after the infection is gone,” Dr. Ford says.
“Some medications can cause a metallic taste because your body absorbs the medicine and it then comes out in the saliva,” Dr. Ford explains. These medicines include:
- Antibiotics such as clarithromycin, metronidazole and tetracycline.
- Allopurinol, a gout medicine.
- Blood pressure medications, including captopril.
- Lithium, which is used to treat certain psychiatric conditions.
- Methazolamide, used to treat glaucoma.
- Metformin, a diabetes medication.
Medicines that can cause a dry mouth, such as antidepressants, can also be a culprit of metallic taste because they close your taste buds, which can in turn impact your sense of taste.
Over-the-counter vitamins or medicines
Multivitamins with heavy metals (such as chromium, copper and zinc) or cold remedies (such as zinc lozenges) can cause a metallic taste. So can prenatal vitamins and iron or calcium supplements.
Usually, the taste will go away as your body processes the vitamins or medicine. “If not, check your dosage and make sure you’re not taking too much,” Dr. Ford advises.
Some temporary illnesses can change your sense of taste, which may leave you tasting metal:
- Upper respiratory infections.
The taste usually goes away when the infection does, so take it easy and get well soon.
Patients being treated with chemotherapy or radiation — especially for cancers of the head and neck — may experience a range of changes in taste and smell, including a metallic taste sometimes referred to as “chemo mouth.”
Studies show that zinc and vitamin D may help combat it, though research is ongoing.
Blame it on hormones: Dysgeusia is especially common during pregnancy. For some expectant mothers, that means cravings for pickles and ice cream, while for others, it could mean an inexplicable metallic or sour taste.
There’s hope, though. “Typically, dysgeusia is at its worst in the first trimester,” Dr. Ford says, “so as your pregnancy progresses, the metallic taste should fade.”
Everyone’s taste buds diminish with age, but for people with dementia, those changes may be expedited as a result of changes in the brain. Sometimes food starts tasting different than it used to, which doctors call “taste abnormalities.”
“The taste buds are connected by nerves to the brain, and taste abnormalities can occur when the portion of the brain related to taste is not working properly,” Dr. Ford explains.
A metallic taste in your mouth can be a side effect of food allergies, especially to such as shellfish or tree nuts. It’s an early sign of anaphylaxis, which can be deadly. If you have (or suspect you have) such an allergy, speak with your doctor about what to do in case of an allergic reaction — before it strikes.
Inhaling high levels of certain substances can result in a metallic taste.
- Insecticides: A metallic taste in your mouth could be a sign of certain types of pesticide poisoning.
- Lead: Most often found in lead-based paint, paint dust and soil contaminated by peeling paint, this chemical element has a number of other sources, too, including water, pottery and some cosmetics.
- Mercury: Typically associated with fish and other seafood, this toxic metal can also be found on construction sites and in old thermometers.
“These chemicals can cause significant health concerns, so if you’ve had exposure to them, you’ll want to see a doctor immediately,” Dr. Ford says. “The metallic taste in your mouth should go away once the underlying condition has been treated.”
Metallic taste and COVID-19
Doctors have long known that a loss of taste and smell are a possible side effect of COVID-19 — but some people have also reported a metallic taste.
“Typically, metal mouth resolves itself once the underlying cause has been treated, but a COVID-19-induced metallic taste in the mouth could stick around for weeks or even months after your recovery from the virus,” Dr. Ford says.
Tips to Prevent Metallic Taste
Dr. Ford recommends steps you can take on your own to minimize metal mouth.
- Maintain good oral hygiene, including regular brushing, flossing and tongue-scraping, to keep your mouth healthy.
- Stay hydrated to prevent dry mouth, which can cause a metallic taste.
- Swap out metal cutlery and water bottles, which can make metallic tastes worse. Try glass, plastic or ceramic versions instead.
- Rinse your mouth before you eat, using a solution of baking soda and warm water. It can regulate the pH balance of your mouth and help to neutralize acid — including that gross metallic taste.
- Quit smoking, as cigarettes may exacerbate the taste of metal (among other negative impacts on your health).
- Suck on ice, whether it’s cubes, chips and unsweetened ice pops.
- Pop a mint or a piece of gum — just be sure to go sugar-free!
- Eat foods that can mask the taste of metal.
- Citrus fruits, especially lemon and lime juices.
- Sour foods, like pickles and other vinegar-based items.
- Sweeteners, such as maple syrup (which should be used in small amounts).
Whatever you do, though, don’t neglect the root of the issue.
“If you have a persistent funny taste in your mouth, don’t just try to mask the symptoms,” Dr. Ford urges. “Talk with your doctor, who can determine if you have a serious illness or condition and help you take steps to address the underlying caused.”