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Posted by Dr. Monica Wonnacott | January 23, 2016

The Scoop On Your Tongue And Taste Buds

Thanks E.H. from Utah for your recent topic suggestion about your child’s taste buds.

Scientific Background:

Here’s a little back ground information on the tongue and taste buds. The tongue is made up entirely of muscle and connective tissue. The underside of the tongue is smooth and does not play a role in taste. The top of the tongue is covered with hair-like projections called papillae. These are the little bumps you can see and feel on the tongue. There are four types of papilla, located on different parts of the tongue. Taste buds (made up of clusters of taste receptor cells) are microscopic (too small to see) and are most numerous on the papillae. So technically, the little bumps on your tongue are not taste buds, they are papillae. The taste buds are on the papillae.

Taste buds are responsible for detecting the 6 elements of taste perception: salty, sour, bitter, sweet, spicy, and umami (or savory). On average, the human tongue has 2,000-10,000 taste buds.

Potential Problems:

Here are a few of the common problems I see related to taste buds:

  1. Problems with Tasting: Can happen from damage to the taste buds, nerve problems, side-effects from medications, an infection, or problems with the sense of smell.
  2. Enlarged Tongue: A number of medical conditions are associated with large tongues (e.g., Down syndrome, acromegaly, myxedema, amyloidosis).
  3. Color Changes: Can happen from inflammation of the tongue (glossitis). Can also be caused by illnesses, chemicals, vitamin deficiencies, etc.
    • Geographic Tongue: A patchy form of glossitis, where the tongue appears to be smooth in certain areas. Generally not worrisome.
    • Black, White, or Red Tongue: Each color comes from different causes (see your doctor if your child experiences black, white, or red tongue).
  4. Hairy Tongue: Condition where the tongue looks hairy or furry (looks terrible, often harmless). Caused by a number of things, including tobacco, chronic medical conditions, food dyes, antibiotics, drinking coffee, radiation, AIDs, etc.
  5. Tongue Pain: Caused by a number of conditions, including diabetes, cancer, ulcers/cankers, trauma (biting tongue), anemia, etc.
  6. Smooth Tongue: Caused by a number of conditions, including anemia or vitamin B12 deficiency.
  7. Infected Papillae: Usually raised, tender, and white or red papillae. Can happen from infection/illness or irritation. Usually resolves on its own without treatment.

Prevention of Problems:

As always, use good oral hygiene (brushing teeth/tongue). Eat a well-balanced diet (decreases the likelihood of a vitamin deficiency).

When to See Your Doctor:

If the problem is worrisome or persists.

What Will Your Doctor Do?

Some diagnoses can be made on the spot by visualization, while others will require blood tests or possible biopsy of the tongue. Treatment will depend on the diagnosis.