Our sense of taste arises from the sensory information generated after compounds in the oral cavity and oropharynx activate taste receptor cells situated on taste buds. This produces the perception of sweet, bitter, salty, sour, or umami stimuli, depending on the chemical nature of the tastant. Taste impairments (dysgeusia) are alterations of this normal gustatory functioning that may result in complete taste losses (ageusia), partial reductions (hypogeusia), or over-acuteness of the sense of taste (hypergeusia). Taste impairments are not life-threatening conditions, but they can cause sufficient discomfort and lead to appetite loss and changes in eating habits, with possible effects on health. Determinants of such alterations are multiple and consist of both genetic and environmental factors, including aging, exposure to chemicals, drugs, trauma, high alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking, poor oral health, malnutrition, and viral upper respiratory infections including influenza. Disturbances or loss of smell, taste, and chemesthesis have also emerged as predominant neurological symptoms of infection by the recent Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), caused by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus strain 2 (SARS-CoV-2), as well as by previous both endemic and pandemic coronaviruses such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and SARS-CoV. This review is focused on the main causes of alteration, reduction, and loss of taste and their potential repercussion on dietary habits and health, with a special focus on the recently developed hypotheses regarding the mechanisms through which SARS-CoV-2 might alter taste perception.
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