How do we taste…and why does it go wrong?  | NIH MedlinePlus Magazine (2024)

Our sense of taste is important for our health and happiness. Taste helps us make choices about the foods we eat and stops us from eating spoiled or potentially poisonous things. Tasting and eating are personal and social experiences. We create happy memories when we eat our favorite things and share meals with others.

More than 200,000 people visit a doctor each year because they have a problem with their sense of taste or smell. But scientists believe the actual number of people with this disorder is much higher and that the vast majority of people who experience these problems do not seek help. Surprisingly, most people who seek help for a loss of taste actually have a smell disorder instead.

Taste and smell work together

Your senses of taste and smell are closely linked. When you chew food, it releases aromas that travel through a channel connecting the roof of the throat to the nose. If this channel is blocked, such as when your nose is congested, those aromas can’t reach sensory cells in the nose. Without smell, foods tend to taste bland.

How taste works

You might have heard the myth that different “regions” of the tongue recognize specific tastes. In fact, taste cells recognizing each of the different taste qualities are scattered around the tongue.

Taste comes from tiny molecules that are released when you chew, drink, or digest food or liquid. These molecules activate taste cells in the mouth and throat. Clusters of these cells are found in the taste buds on your tongue, on the roof of your mouth, and in the lining of your throat.

Flavor is the combination of heat, coolness, texture, and five taste qualities—sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. Umami, or savory, taste comes from glutamate, which is in foods like meat, certain cheeses, and chicken broth.

People who lose their ability to taste may add too much or too little sugar or salt to their food. This could be a problem for those who need to manage conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, or hypertension. Taste disorders can also weaken or remove your ability to detect spoiled food.

Common taste disorders

Some of the most common taste disorders are:

  • Hypogeusia. When your ability to taste is reduced.
  • Ageusia. When you cannot taste anything.
  • Phantom taste perception. A lingering, often unpleasant taste, even though there is nothing in your mouth.
  • Dysgeusia. A foul, salty, rancid, or metallic taste in your mouth. Sometimes dysgeusia also occurs with burning mouth syndrome, which causes a painful burning sensation in your mouth.

Causes

Some people are born with taste disorders, but most develop them after an injury or illness. Taste problems may be caused by:

  • Upper respiratory and middle ear infections (including COVID-19, flu, or common cold)
  • Poor oral hygiene and dental problems, as well as oral pain and denture problems
  • Dry mouth
  • Wisdom tooth (third molar) removal
  • Surgery of the ear, nose, and throat
  • Head injury
  • Certain medications, including antibiotics and antihistamines
  • Radiation therapy for head and neck cancers
  • Smoking
  • Exposure to chemicals such as insecticides

How are taste disorders diagnosed?

An otolaryngologist—also called an ear, nose, and throat doctor (ENT)—can diagnose taste disorders. The ENT will examine your ears, nose, and throat and will ask about your health history. They may recommend a dental exam to check your oral health.

It’s important to get a proper taste disorder diagnosis. Once you know the cause, your health care provider can create a treatment plan.

How are taste disorders treated or prevented?

Treating a general medical problem can often restore your sense of taste. For example, if you have a cold or allergies, your ability to taste will likely improve as you feel better. You could also get your taste back spontaneously. Proper oral hygiene is important to regaining and maintaining a well-functioning sense of taste. If you’re experiencing taste problems, you could also prepare your food differently.

  • Prepare foods with a variety of colors and textures.
  • Avoid adding more sugar or salt to foods; instead, use aromatic herbs and hot spices to boost flavor.
  • If your diet allows, add small amounts of cheese, bacon bits, butter, olive oil, or toasted nuts on vegetables.
  • Avoid combination dishes, such as casseroles, which can make it hard to detect individual flavors.

If you lost your taste because of a medication, stopping or changing that medicine may solve the problem. But do not stop taking your medications unless directed by your health care provider!

Sometimes taste disorders cannot be treated. In these rare cases, counseling may help you adjust to this condition.

Image credit: Getty Images

July 05, 2024

How do we taste…and why does it go wrong?     | NIH MedlinePlus Magazine (2024)

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