Human beings are born with around 10,000 taste buds, most of which are located directly on the tongue. These taste buds help us enjoy the five primary tastes:

  • sweet
  • sour
  • salty
  • bitter
  • umami

Various factors can affect our taste buds and change the way we perceive taste, including aging, illness, and more.

In this article, we will explore the factors that can contribute to a change in your taste buds and when to see a doctor for an official diagnosis.

Our taste buds are responsible for helping us enjoy the many flavors the world has to offer. When our taste buds encounter food and other substances, the taste cells inside send messages to the brain that help us make sense of what we are tasting. These taste cells work in conjunction with chemical and physical senses to produce what we know as “flavor.”

Changes in our taste buds can greatly affect the way we perceive flavor. Foods can become bland and lack flavor. Your perception of flavor, especially via your taste buds, can be impaired by a variety of factors, from infections to medications, and more.

1. Viral or bacterial infections

Upper respiratory infections, whether viral or bacterial, can cause symptoms like nasal congestion and a runny nose. These symptoms can reduce your sense of smell, which in turn can impact your perception of taste.

Although it may seem as if your taste buds have stopped working when you’re sick with a cold or the flu, the truth is that your sense of taste isn’t nearly as good without your sense of smell.

2. Medical conditions

Nervous system disorders that affect the nerves of the mouth or brain, such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), and Alzheimer’s disease, may cause a change in the perception of taste. In addition, some non-nervous system disorders, such as cancer, can alter taste perception – especially during treatment.

Ultimately, any medical condition that affects the brain, nose, or mouth can also result in a change to your taste buds.

3. Nutrient deficiencies

Malnutrition can cause a deficiency in certain vitamins and minerals that are necessary for the taste buds to function properly. Deficiencies in the following nutrients may lead to a loss of taste:

  • vitamin A
  • vitamin B6
  • vitamin B12
  • zinc
  • copper

4. Nerve damage

Nerves found along the pathway from the mouth to the brain are responsible for taste bud function and the perception of flavor. Nerve damage anywhere along this pathway, whether from injury or illness, can contribute to a change in your taste buds.

Some of the potential causes of nerve damage that can impact your sense of taste include:

  • ear infections
  • ear surgery
  • dental procedures
  • surgical procedures of the mouth
  • facial nerve dysfunction
  • brain trauma

5. Medications

Some medications may change your taste buds and alter your perception of taste. The most common medications that affect your sense of taste are angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors, which are used to treat high blood pressure.

Other medications may cause a change in taste by contributing to dry mouth, which makes it hard for the taste buds to recognize taste chemicals. Some of the common medications that cause dry mouth include:

  • antibiotics
  • antidepressants
  • antifungals
  • antihistamines
  • antihypertensives
  • anti-inflammatories
  • antipsychotics
  • antivirals
  • CNS medications
  • diuretics
  • muscle relaxants
  • thyroid medications

6. Aging

As we age, our taste buds not only diminish in number, but also change in function. The 10,000 taste buds we are born with begin to decrease as we move into middle age. The taste buds that remain also experience a decrease in size and sensitivity, which can make it harder to perceive taste.

The loss of smell that occurs with aging can also lead to a decrease in the sense of taste as we age. In addition, many of the illnesses and conditions we experience as we age – some of which have been listed above – can have a negative influence on our taste buds.

7. Smoking

Smoking can also negatively affect your sense of taste, among other harmful long-term effects. The chemicals contained in cigarettes, such as carcinogens and alkaloids, can alter the receptors contained in your taste buds.

In one study from 2017, researchers explored changes in the perception of taste in smokers who quit smoking. Initially, a high nicotine dependence correlated with a lower taste sensitivity in study participants. As the study period progressed, the researcher observed improvements in taste bud function in as little as two weeks.

Outside of illness, aging, or other causes, taste perception is generally constant. However, adult taste bud regeneration occurs frequently both on a cellular level and a functional level.

According to animal research from 2006, our taste buds themselves turnover every 10 days, while further research from 2010 suggests that approximately 10 percent of the cells inside these taste buds turnover each day.

A sudden change in your taste buds or a sudden loss of taste can indicate an underlying medical condition. Some medical conditions that can cause a sudden change in your perception of taste include:

Most causes of a sudden loss of taste, such as an upper respiratory infection or common cold, are not serious and can be treated at home. However, in some situations, certain viral or bacterial illnesses can overwhelm the immune system. If you are having trouble eating, drinking, or breathing, you should seek medical attention right away.

When damaged taste buds are caused by an underlying medical condition, they can be repaired by treating the underlying condition. Bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics, while viral infections can be managed with plenty of rest at home.

For more serious conditions, such as those that cause long-term nerve damage, treatment may not necessarily restore the function of the taste buds. Ultimately, recovery depends on the extent of the nerve damage and the body’s ability to repair it.

When medications are the cause of loss of taste, your doctor may choose to adjust or change your medication to alleviate this side effect.

If you have a sudden loss of taste that accompanies symptoms of more serious conditions, such as a head injury, mouth injury, stroke, or other nervous system condition, it’s time to visit a doctor. They can assess your medical history and if necessary, run further diagnostic tests to determine the underlying cause.

Taste bud changes can occur naturally as we age or may be caused by an underlying medical condition. Viral and bacterial illnesses of the upper respiratory system are a common cause of loss of taste. In addition, many commonly prescribed medications can also lead to a change in the function of the taste buds. In some cases, a more serious underlying condition may be causing a change in the perception of taste.

If you have been experiencing a change in your taste buds that you can’t explain or that won’t go away, schedule a visit with your doctor for further testing.