Enjoying a piece of cake? Munching on potato chips? Drinking a glass of lemonade? No matter what foods you like most, we all interpret those delicious flavors the same way: through our sense of taste. But what is your sense of taste, and how does it work?
People experience five different types of taste: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory (sometimes called “umami”). People used to believe that these five types were segregated to different portions of the tongue, but scientists now believe those nerves are spread evenly across it.
Taste buds are clusters of sensory cells connected to nerve fibers that receive taste sensations. They are mostly located on the tongue, but are also scattered throughout the throat, nasal cavity, esophagus, and epiglottis.
The tastes we perceive are a combination of both the sense of taste from our buds as well as the sense of smell. When your smell and taste nerves are stimulated, signals are sent to the brain, which translates those signals and identifies what you are tasting.
It’s important to note that flavor isn’t the same thing as taste. Flavor is the overall sensory experience, or “impression” of something we are eating or drinking. It is a combination of your taste and smell senses, as well as how food feels – it’s texture – and how hot or cold it is. When it comes to spicy food, the chemical capsaicin will even trigger pain receptors.
You can lose your sense of taste in a variety of ways. For example, once you hit 50 or 60, years old, you will start to lose your taste buds, resulting in a gradual, mild decline in taste sensitivity. Because our senses of smell and taste are intimately tied together, you can also lose your sense of taste from a number of outside sources that may cause injury to the nerves involved in the sense of smell. These include an upper respiratory illness like the common cold or flu, an ear infection, or even a head injury. You can also directly damage your taste buds if you burn your tongue on hot foods. Exposure to cigarette smoke can have a negative effect on your sense of taste as well.
“Ninety percent of taste disorders are caused by the impairment of smell rather than the sense of taste,” CEENTA ENT doctor Darrell Klotz, MD, said. “Anyone with an unexplained loss of smell should get a thorough examination from an ENT doctor.”
Fortunately, treating nasal issues or quitting smoking can bring your sense of taste back. If you lose your sense of taste because of an illness, it should return when you get better. And if you do burn your taste buds, they will often grow right back.
That said, if your sense of taste suddenly disappears, they’re persistent, or your sense of taste is abnormal, you should see a doctor, as they could be signs of a more serious problem.
There are too many delicious foods to try to ever go without a sense of taste. If you’re having issues with yours, reach out to CEENTA today to make an appointment.
This blog is for informational purposes only. For specific medical questions, please consult your physician. Dr. Klotz practices in our SouthPark office. To make an appointment with him or any of CEENTA’s ENT doctors, call 704-295-3000. You can also schedule an appointment online or through myCEENTAchart.
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