Young woman in a towel brushing her tongue in a bathroom mirror

Fungiform Papillae and Your Tongue

Your tongue can detect a range of tastes and temperatures, and it helps you speak, swallow, and even sing. But how much do you know about its different parts? The fungiform papillae are just one portion of this incredible muscle that performs essential tasks for our bodies.

Papillae: Form and Function

Papillae are the tiny raised protrusions on the tongue that contain taste buds. The four types of papillae are filiform, fungiform, foliate, and circumvallate. Except for the filiform, these papillae allow us to differentiate between sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami (or savory) flavors.

Fungiform papillae are mushroom-shaped and scattered across your tongue's surface. Your tongue has between 200 and 400 fungiform papillae that range across the dorsum or top of the tongue but are mostly concentrated on the sides and the tip. Each papilla contains three to five taste buds, adding up to more than 1,500 receptors overall. The function of fungiform papillae is not just to detect flavor but also to sense temperature and touch.

Not only do your tongue's sensory cells help you to enjoy food, but they also help you avoid pain and poison. By sending information to nearby nerve fibers and on to the gustatory (taste-related) portion of your brain, papillae alert your body to dangers like rotten food, poisonous gases, or smoke.

The Life of a Papilla

The cells of the papillae are continually regenerated – about every two weeks or so. However, as a person ages, some of these taste buds don't get replaced.

A variety of factors can cause abnormal enlargement or loss of the taste papillae. Smoking, nutritional deficiencies, certain medications, illness, and old age can alter these sensory organs' number and function.

Our ability to taste is also related to our ability to smell. The olfactory nerve, stimulated by smell, helps taste buds communicate the flavors that they absorb to the brain. Colds and other upper respiratory illnesses can affect the olfactory nerve, which can affect smell and taste.

Conditions That Affect the Tongue

A mild allergic reaction, certain viruses, or even stress can sometimes inflame the papillae in a condition called transient lingual papillitis. Fortunately, this pimple-like irritation is temporary and should go away in a matter of days.

A very painful condition related to altered taste buds is burning mouth syndrome. This condition causes a burning sensation on the tongue, palate, and other parts of the mouth and can occur without warning. Burning mouth syndrome affects the ability to detect bitter tastes on the tip of the tongue. If this sensation is lost, pain receptors in the tongue become overactive. The cause of spontaneous burning mouth syndrome is unknown, but folate, B12 and iron deficiencies, and mouth infections may cause a similar sensation.

The papillae are versatile sensory organs that help us enjoy our foods and drinks, so take care of your taste buds. Whatever your favorite flavors are, you need your fungiform papillae to enjoy them.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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