What to Know About Your Taste Buds

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on April 21, 2022
5 min read

Taste buds are tiny sensory organs on your tongue that send taste messages to your brain. These organs have nerve endings that have chemical reactions to the food you eat. With how many taste buds humans have, you’re able to sense a range of flavors across five categories: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory.

You can see your taste buds when you stick out your tongue in front of a mirror. They are in the tiny bumps — called papillae — visible on your tongue. The tiny bumps have highly sensitive microscopic hairs that are responsible for sensing taste and communicating those tastes to your brain.

There are five main tastes that your taste buds recognize. They are:

  • Sweet. You get this from sugary foods.
  • Sour. The sour taste comes from acidic foods like lemons or juice with organic acids.
  • Salty. You get a salty taste when you eat foods that have table salt or types of mineral salts like magnesium or potassium.
  • Bitter. Your tongue senses a bitter taste mostly from different plant foods.
  • Savory. This is best described as the “umami” taste. This is the taste you get when you take foods like meat broth.

Your taste buds may also sense fatty, alkaline, metallic, and water-like tastes. Since fats are an important part of a balanced diet, there may be taste buds that are specifically sensitive to fatty tastes. The alkaline taste comes from briny foods or liquids, and is thought to be the opposite of a sour taste. However, there is no conclusive research on these tastes.

Your sense of taste is also linked to your nose and sense of smell. There are special cells called olfactory sensors in the upper part of the nose. Chemicals released when you chew food that trigger those special cells. Together, the olfactory sensors and taste buds create the full flavor of food.

Humans have about 10,000 taste buds that get replaced after every two weeks. As you age, some taste buds stop regrowing, so older people may have closer to 5,000 working taste buds. Because of this, foods may taste stronger when you are younger.

Some foods, drinks, and habits can cause taste buds to swell and temporarily damage your ability to taste. If taste buds aren’t given a chance to heal, they could be damaged or changed more permanently. To prevent damaging taste buds, avoid or reduce:

  • Smoking
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Bacteria buildup or infections by brushing and flossing often
  • Extremely cold or hot foods
  • Very spicy foods
  • Very sour foods

Since taste buds regenerate by themselves every couple of weeks, some taste issues will repair themselves. If you keep having taste issues, you can fix or manage them by finding the root cause. For example, some taste issues related to dry mouth can improve by drinking more water, and taste issues caused by a mineral deficiency can improve with vitamin supplements. If you think medications are affecting taste, or if problems don’t go away in 2–4 weeks, talk with your doctor. 

Here are some tips you can use to improve your sense of taste:

  • Choose foods that look good to the eye.
  • Maintain dental hygiene by properly cleaning your mouth.
  • Try different food textures, flavors, and temperatures to see which one appeals to you the most.
  • Increase the amount of protein in your diet. If foods like meats cause a metallic taste, consider marinating them before cooking to get more flavor.
  • Try using spices and sauces that have stronger flavors.
  • Eating or drinking sour foods or liquids like lemon or lime can help increase saliva production and wake up your taste buds.

There are various taste disorders that mostly affect adults. They include:

  • Ageusia. This occurs when you lose your sense of taste completely.
  • Hypogeusia. This is when your sense of taste reduces, but not totally.
  • Aliageusia. Here, the foods or drinks you used to find pleasant-tasting start to taste unpleasant.
  • Phantogeusia. This condition causes you to think you taste something that’s not there. 

Taste disorders present with symptoms like:

  • Decreased sweetness or saltiness 
  • Sweet foods start to taste bad
  • Sensing taste when not eating anything
  • Metallic taste

Infections. Some infections (viral, fungal, and bacterial) that affect the mouth, gums, teeth, and throat may damage your taste buds and lead to a taste disorder. They do so by causing swelling, reducing the blood flow to taste buds or by producing chemicals that interfere with taste. Dental issues caused by sweet foods are a common cause of taste disorders.

Dry mouth. A lack of saliva in the mouth prevents food from dissolving well enough to activate your taste sensors. Dry mouth can be caused by conditions like Sjogren’s syndrome, which causes your body to attack its saliva glands, and can impair your sense of taste. Dry mouth can also be caused by medication or by not drinking enough water.

Nerve injury. Damage to nerves in or around your mouth may impair your ability to sense taste. Some surgeries (like ear, neck, and oral surgeries) or trauma may cause damage to some of these nerves.

Medications. Some common antibiotics (like amoxicillin and metronidazole), heart medications (angiotensin-converting-enzyme inhibitors, also known as ACE inhibitors, like lisinopril), and chemotherapy medications (like bleomycin, carboplatin, and cisplatin) are known to cause taste issues.

Metabolic disorders. Metabolic conditions like diabetes can impair your sense of taste. Treating these conditions may help reverse their effects on taste.

Vitamin deficiencies. Certain minerals, like B vitamins and zinc, are important to taste. Without enough of these minerals in your diet, you may experience a loss of taste. Taking supplements may help you get back your tasting ability.

Acid reflux or GERD. Stomach juices contain acid and enzymes that may interfere with your sense of taste. If you have acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), you may get a sour taste in your mouth.

Neurologic disorders. Some neurologic conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease are linked to loss of smell and taste.

Inflammation. Inflammation or swelling of the tongue can cause the pores on your tongue to close thus interfering with your ability to sense taste.

Smoking tobacco. Using tobacco causes some changes on the tongue and throat surface which affects your ability to taste things.

Age. It is normal for your sense of taste to slowly decrease as you age, since some taste buds will stop regrowing.