The fact that you are able to taste the foods and drinks is because of the taste buds you have on your tongue.
However, it will not be surprising to learn that you have your tongue to thank for this ability to taste.
The surface of the human tongue contains tiny bumps, called Papillae that contain thousands of tastebuds, and also some glands to help in the creation and secretion of saliva.
It is important to note that there are 4 different types of papillae that come in different shapes and sizes.
Moreover, these are found in different regions of your tongue in different numbers.
However, what most of them have in common are the tastebuds they have.
They help to enjoy the 5 primary tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salt, salty sour, and umami.
Certain factors like age, illness and some others can affect your taste buds and change the way you perceive taste.
Let’s learn more about them in detail.
Taste Buds Anatomy
Your taste buds are a combination of cells that are basal cells, columnar cells, and between 10 to 50 receptors cells that renew every 9 to 10 days.
Some of these taste receptors cells contain proteins on their surface that bind some of the chemicals from the food you eat.
While others have ion channels that are activated by different chemicals on the area of the tongue.
Once a receptor detects a particular chemical, it will convey the info of that particular chemical along with a series of neural pathways to the brain, where it will perceive it.
It is important to note that the number of taste buds you have varies from 2000 to 8000 taste buds.
Some individuals have fewer, larger tastebuds, while others can have smaller ones.
Despite what you learnt in your class about your tongue, there are different types of taste receptors that activates when a certain chemical interacts with the taste buds.
The receptors for sweet, bitter, sour, and umami taste are proteins present on the surface of the cells.
They interact with them in the presence of certain chemicals, thus, triggering sensation or a sequence of events resulting in the chemical messages.
However, it is important to note that it is not only the taste sensation on your tongues, there are also a number of taste receptors found in your throat, and in your gut.
Tough these act in a slightly different way than those present on your tongue.
Moreover, the way a food smells is also important for your overall eating experience.
Causes of Taste Bud Changes
Your taste buds are responsible for helping you enjoy a number of flavours the world has to offer.
When your taste buds encounter food and other substances, the taste cells inside send messages to the brain.
This helps you to make sense of what you are tasting.
These taste cells work together with chemical and physical senses to produce what you term “flavour”.
Changes in your taste buds can greatly affect the way you perceive flavour.
Foods can become bland and lack flavour. Moreover, your perception of flavour especially via your taste buds can change.
These changes can be due to a number of factors ranging from infections to medications and more.
Before moving to the causes of changes in your taste bus, let’s learn about what causes impaired taste.
Causes of Impaired Taste
There are a number of reasons why you can have an impaired taste and many of these involve your respiratory system.
Even if you or your doctor can diagnose a smell disorder, the temporary interruption of smell you experience during cold or other respiratory illness can impair your sense of taste.
Most common conditions that can impair your ability to taste are:
Other causes can be smoking, gum inflammation like gingivitis or periodontal diseases, head or ear injuries.
These deficiencies include Vitamin B-12 and zinc in particular.
It is important to note to nervous system disorders can also alter your sense of taste.
These disorders affect how your nerves send messages to the rest of your body and the organs that control your taste can also be affected.
Learn more about Sinus Infection and Toothache here.
Factors that Affect your Taste Buds
The following are certain medical conditions that affect your taste buds:
Viral or Bacterial Infections
Upper respiratory infections whether viral or bacterial can often cause symptoms like nasal congestion and a runny nose.
These symptoms can reduce your sense of smell, thus, affecting your perception of taste.
Although you may feel like your taste buds are not working, however, in reality, your sense of taste is nearly as good without your sense of smell.
Moreover, some non-nervous disorders like cancer can also alter your taste perception, especially during the treatment.
Therefore, any medical condition that affects your brain, nose, or mouth can also result in a change in your taste buds.
Malnutrition can cause a deficiency in certain vitamins and minerals that are necessary for the taste buds to function properly.
Vitamin A, B6, B12, zinc and copper deficiencies can lead to loss of taste.
Nerves found along the pathway from your mouth to the brain are responsible for taste buds function and perception of flavour.
However, damage to these nerves can cause changes in your taste buds.
Some of the potential causes of nerve damage can be:
Ear infection, ear surgery, dental procedures, surgical procedures, facial nerve dysfunction, or brain trauma.
Other factors that can affect your taste buds are as follows:
Certain medications may also alter your taste buds and change your perception of taste.
The most common medications that affect your sense of taste are angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors that help to treat high blood pressure.
Other medications may cause a change in taste by contributing to dry mouth, which often makes it hard for your taste buds to recognize certain chemicals.
Some other medications that cause dry mouth are antibiotics, antidepressants, antihistamines, antihypertensives, or anti-inflammatories.
Moreover, antipsychotics, antivirals, CNS medications, diuretics, muscle relaxants, and thyroid medications can also cause it.
As you age, your taste buds will not only diminish, but they will also change in function.
The number of taste buds will decrease as you move to middle age and they may also decrease in size and sensitivity.
Thus, it can make it harder to perceive taste. Moreover, the loss of smell that occurs with ageing can also lead to decare in the sense of taste as you age.
Smoking can negatively affect your taste among other harmful long-term effects.
Chemicals like carcinogens and alkaloids can alter the tongue receptors. According to a study, high nicotine dependence can cause changes in taste sensitivity.
Changes in the Taste Buds
Other than illness, ageing, or other causes, taste perception remains constant. However, adult taste bud regeneration occurs more frequently both on a cellular and functional level.
According to animal research, taste buds themselves turnover every 10 days.
While further research suggests that almost 20% of the cells inside the tastebuds turnover each day.
A sudden change in your taste buds or sudden loss of taste can indicate an underlying medical condition.
Some of these are:
Common cold, sinus infection, ear infection, ear injury, throat infection, upper airway infection, gum diseases, and head injury.
Most causes of a sudden loss of taste like upper respiratory infection or a common clod are not serious.
Moreover, you can treat them at home easily.
However, in some cases, certain viral or bacterial infections can overwhelm your immune system and can cause trouble eating, drinking, or breathing.
In such cases, you should seek medical attention right away.
Repairing the Taste Buds
If an underlying medical condition is causing damage to the taste buds, you can repair them by treating the underlying medical condition.
You can treat bacterial infections with antibiotics, however, for viral infections, you can manage them with enough rest.
However, for more serious conditions that cause long-term nerve damage, treatment may not restore the functions of the taste buds.
Recovery depends on the extent of the nerve damage and your body’s ability to repair the damage.
Moreover, if medications are causing the loss of taste, then your doctor may choose to adjust or change your medications to alleviate this side effect.
Visiting a Doctor
If you have a sudden loss of taste along with other symptoms of more serious conditions like a head injury, stroke, or other nervous system conditions, it is important to visit a doctor.
They can assess your medical history and if necessary, they will order other diagnostic tests to determine the underlying causes.
In such a case, they can advise a treatment plan for you to treat the underlying medical condition.
Changes in your taste buds can occur naturally as you age or may be due to underlying medical conditions. Viral and bacterial infections of the upper respiratory system are common causes of such changes. With prescription medication, there are changes that can also occur.
However, in case of a more serious condition, you should seek medical attention. If you are experiencing sudden changes in your taste buds, then you should visit your docotr for further testing.