Ageusia is the loss of taste functions of the tongue, particularly the inability to detect sweetness, sourness, bitterness, saltiness, and umami (meaning “pleasant/savory taste”). It is sometimes confused with anosmia – a loss of the sense of smell. Because the tongue can only indicate texture and differentiate between sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami, most of what is perceived as the sense of taste is actually derived from smell. True ageusia is relatively rare compared to hypogeusia – a partial loss of taste – and dysgeusia – a distortion or alteration of taste.
The main causes of taste disorders are head trauma, infections of upper respiratory tract, exposure to toxic substances, iatrogenic causes, medicines, and glossodynia (“Burning Mouth Syndrome (BMS)”).
Head trauma can cause lesions in regions of the central nervous system which are involved in processing taste stimuli, including thalamus, brain stem, and temporal lobes; it can also cause damage to neurological pathways involved in transmission of taste stimuli.
Tissue damage to the nerves that support the tongue can cause ageusia, especially damage to the chorda tympani nerve and the glossopharyngeal nerve. The chorda tympani nerve passes taste for the front two-thirds of the tongue and the glossopharyngeal nerve passes taste for the back third of the tongue. Neurological disorders such as Bell’s palsy, Familial dysautonomia, and Multiple sclerosis cause similar problems to nerve damage, as do certain infectious conditions like primary amoeboid meningoencephalopathy. The lingual nerve (which is a branch of the trigeminal V3 nerve, but carries taste sensation back to the chorda tympani nerve to the geniculate ganglion of the facial nerve) can also be damaged during otologic surgery, causing a feeling of metal taste.
Problems with the endocrine system
Deficiency of vitamin B3 (niacin) and zinc can cause problems with the endocrine system, which may cause taste loss or alteration. Disorders of the endocrine system, such as Cushing’s syndrome, hypothyroidism and diabetes mellitus, can cause similar problems. Ageusia can also be caused by medicinal side-effects from antirheumatic drugs such as penicillamine, antiproliferative drugs such as cisplatin, ACE inhibitors, and other drugs including azelastine, clarithromycin, terbinafine, and zopiclone.
Local damage and inflammation that interferes with the taste buds or local nervous system, such as that stemming from radiation therapy, glossitis, tobacco use, or the wearing of dentures, can also cause ageusia. Other known causes include loss of taste sensitivity from aging (causing a difficulty detecting salty or bitter taste), anxiety disorder, cancer, renal failure and liver failure.
Both taste and smell disorders are diagnosed by an otolaryngologist, a doctor of the ear, nose, throat, head, and neck. An otolaryngologist can determine the extent of your taste disorder by measuring the lowest concentration of a taste quality that you can detect or recognize. You may also be asked to compare the tastes of different substances or to note how the intensity of a taste grows when a substance’s concentration is increased.
Scientists have developed taste testing in which the patient responds to different chemical concentrations. This may involve a simple “sip, spit, and rinse” test, or chemicals may be applied directly to specific areas of the tongue.
- MedTerms Online Medical Dictionary. “Ageusia”. Retrieved April 15, 2005.
- Family Practice Notebook. “Taste Sensation”. Retrieved April 15, 2005.
- Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. “Taste Disorders”. Retrieved May 26, 2010.