Dead Taste Bud

Facts about a Dead Taste Bud

One of the greatest pleasures in life is enjoying the many diverse delicious flavors of food; one that can be greatly diminished through what many believe to be a “dead” taste bud.  The ability to taste is not a mere coincidence of nature; rather, it is a deliberate yet finite process that many take for granted until it begins to decrease in effectiveness.



Next to the lips, the tongue is the first body organ that is involved in the digestive process.   Though seemingly simple in design, its function is complex.  The tongue is comprised of numerous groups of muscles.  These muscles enable the tongue to move freely about in the mouth as it completes many different tasks.  Not only is the tongue necessary for food to be eaten but it is also a necessary instrument for speech.  Its most unique capability is that it can distinguish between different flavors.  The bottom of the tongue is smooth, while the sides and top are rough, covered with tiny bumps called papillae.  Underneath the papillae are the sensory taste buds; providing the tools needed to experience the sensations of sweet, sour, salty and bitter.  A fifth sensation, called umami, is to determine savories, which is distinctive in meats, cheeses and chicken broth.  While our sense of smell assists in the process of identifying flavors, generally the taste buds get all of the credit.

What exactly are taste buds?

Although the tongue usually is believed to solely possess flavor sensors, our entire mouth is strategically supplied with a number of taste buds.  The flavors that we are able to discern in the foods and beverages that we consume are made possible through nerve endings which are more familiarly known as taste buds, so named for their resemblance to the buds on plants.  And not just a few of them; the average human is born with approximately 10,000 taste buds.  Flavors are experienced when minute molecules are released through the action of chewing or drinking, providing a stimulus for the sensory cells within the taste buds.  Messages are then transmitted to the brain via three specific nerves, identifying receptors that react to one of the five taste qualities.  If blindfolded, this is how we would know whether we are eating an apple or a raw potato.

Taste bud health

Though many people believe there is such a thing as a dead taste bud, the taste bud itself does not die.  The cells within the buds, however, do expire after a short life span of about 12 days.  New cells are continually generated to replace the dying cells; in fact, a single taste bud may have cells in varying stages of development at any given point in time.  While they do not die off, the taste buds can be damaged through a number of methods.  Smoking, extreme heat or cold, highly spiced foods, infection, dry mouth and certain medications are capable of doing damage to the taste buds and thereby affect our ability to experience taste.  Fortunately, they do heal in time to provide the same quality of sensation as before the damage occurred.

As people age, the number of taste buds their mouth contains may decrease.  It may have been noticed among families that Grandpa seems to need to salt his food more profusely, or use a sauce to add flavor to his food more than other members of the family.  This is normal, since most people over the age of 50 begin to lose the number of taste buds.  This doesn’t mean their taste sensory is dead; taste bud cell regeneration simply slows to decrease their ability to experience flavors.

Experiencing diverse flavors is a pleasure in life.  Since aging as well as other causes can affect the ability to taste, a “dead” taste bud is actually just diminished capabilities for taste.