What to know about swollen taste buds
By Rachel Nall, RN, BSN, CCRN
Reviewed by Christine Frank, DDS
Taste buds are the small sensory organs that allow a person to enjoy different flavors, from sweet to salty and savory.
The taste buds typically regenerate themselves about every 1 to 2 weeks. However, there are times when they can become damaged, burned, or swollen.
There are many potential causes of damage to the taste buds, and these will determine the choice of treatment.
Fast facts on swollen taste buds:
- Taste buds are located on tiny round bumps called papillae at the back of the tongue.
- Swollen taste buds may accompany a swollen tongue or result from irritation of the taste buds themselves.
- If swelling persists, it can damage a person's sense of taste.
Swollen taste buds may be caused by a number of factors, including a dry mouth, or acid reflux.
Inside the papillae are small, hair-like projections known as microvilli that have sensory cells. These cells transmit messages to the brain. Disruption to these can affect a person's ability to taste foods.
Several conditions can irritate the taste buds enough to result in swelling. These include:
- acid reflux that causes acid to rise up the throat and burn the taste buds in the back of the throat
- burns, cuts, or injuries to the mouth that can result in inflammation and swelling
- a dry mouth
- eating very spicy or sour foods
- exposure to extremely hot or cold foods
- history of or exposure to radiation of the head and neck
- infection, such as a cold, flu, fungal, or bacterial illness
- poor oral hygiene or dental problems
- taking medications that are very acidic on the tongue
Sometimes an inflamed taste bud can signal a more severe problem, such as tongue cancer, which can cause inflammation that leads to tongue and taste bud swelling.
What do they look like?
The papillae may appear white or bright red. Some may also have little fluid-filled blisters that are known as pustules on the tongue.
Normally, however, a person should not be able to see their taste buds with the naked eye.
When to see a doctor
Because the body grows new taste buds all the time, most people's swollen taste buds resolve quickly. Either someone will treat the underlying condition they have, or the damage to their taste buds heals with time.
However, there are an estimated 200,000 Americans who seek treatment each year for disorders related to their sense of taste, according to the National Institutes of Health.
If a person notices chronically swollen taste buds or feels their sense of smell is affected, they will usually make an appointment to see an otolaryngologist, who is an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist.
A physical examination is usually conducted to diagnose swollen taste buds.
An ENT specialist will start by taking a health history, reviewing a person's medical conditions, and the medications they take. They will consider the symptoms and do a physical examination. The doctor can also conduct taste tests by applying specially-flavored substances to a person's tongue.
If a doctor suspects a person could have tongue cancer, they may take a biopsy or sample of tissue. A specialist known as a pathologist will then view the cells under a microscope to look for cancerous cells.
What are the treatments?
A person may be able to reduce their swollen taste buds by treating the underlying cause. This could include taking antibiotics for a bacterial infection or gum problem.
Sometimes a doctor may prescribe alternate medications to reduce the effects of tongue or taste bud swelling.
Quitting smoking can also help a person who smokes and has problems with taste.
Other steps include:
- brushing and flossing the teeth at least twice daily.
- using a special mouth rinse and toothpaste if a chronic dry mouth is a cause
- gargling with warm salt water several times daily
- holding small amounts of ice chips on the tongue to reduce swelling
- taking medications to reduce acid reflux, such as proton pump inhibitors and H2 receptor blockers
A person can also talk to their doctor about individual treatments that may benefit them.
Damage taste buds might mean someone is unable to taste spoiled foods. A sense of taste that is compromised could also affect a person's appetite and enjoyment of their food.
These problems with food consumption can result in unwanted weight loss if not dealt with quickly. Ideally, a person can seek medical treatment to identify underlying causes of taste bud swelling, so their taste sensations return.
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