Our tongue consists of numerous bumps on its dorsal surface called the papilla. Tongue papillae contain taste buds and are responsible for the sweet, salt, bitter, and umami taste that we experience while eating or drinking.

In this article, we will discuss the tongue papillae (also called as the lingual papillae), the taste buds and clinical conditions which affect the tongue papillae such as hairy tongue, glossitis, etc.

Tongue papillae or lingual papillae

Raised structures present on the dorsal surface of our tongue are called lingual papillae. Lingual papillae give our tongue a rough appearance. The bumps which you notice on your tongue are the papillae.

Four types of lingual papillae present in our tongue and they are – (1)

Circumvallate papillae

The circumvallate papillae resemble the frustum of a cone and lie in a V-shaped row. Circumvallate papillae are present anterior to the sulcus terminalis.

They are the largest papillae and least common. We have eight to twelve circumvallate papillae on an average. The circumvallate papillae help identify bitter and bad tastes.

Gender, culture, and genetics may influence the number of circumvallate papillae.

Filiform papillae

These are the most common papillae present in the tongue. Filiform papillae cover the anterior two-thirds of the tongue. Filiform papillae are small, conical shaped papillae devoid of taste buds.

Filiform papillae are grey-white and covered by keratinized squamous epithelium. The epithelial lining imparts roughness to the dorsal surface of the tongue which provides friction to help the movement of food bolus during chewing.

Fungiform papillae

Fungiform papillae look like mushrooms hence the name. These papillae are located on the superior surface of the tongue and have numerous taste buds.

The taste buds are present on the lateral part of the papillae. The taste buds help to differentiate between sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (2) flavors. The facial nerve innervates fungiform papillae.

Foliate papillae

Foliate papillae are vertical and relatively short. These papillae are present on the sides and back of the tongue. The foliate papillae may be found anterior to the palatoglossal arch.

These papillae are coated with non- keratinized epithelium and are softer than the filiform papillae. These papillae have many taste buds.

Taste buds

Taste buds help us appreciate the taste of anything that we eat or drink. Taste buds are present in the oral cavity, and the concentration of taste buds is higher in the tongue. In the tongue, taste buds are located in the papillae of the tongue.

The taste buds are oval and covered by stratified squamous epithelium. Elongated taste (gustatory), supportive, and basal stem cells are present in each taste bud.

The gustatory cells have a shelf life of approximately seven to ten days and are responsible for taste perception.

Conditions which affect the tongue papillae

Hairy tongue

The black hairy tongue is a condition in which the tongue appears black. The condition is painless, but the appearance is not a pleasant sight.

In this condition, the papillae become extremely long. Bacteria grow on these papillae, and food debris gets stuck. The overgrown papillae give the hairy appearance and bacteria, and food debris contributes to the black color of the tongue.

People with poor oral hygiene are likely to be more affected by this condition. Also, patients who are on antibiotics, undergoing chemotherapy are likely to get affected.

Glossitis

Glossitis is the inflammation of the tongue and loss of lingual papillae. The complete loss of papillae causes the tongue to appear smooth and glossy(the condition is known as atrophic glossitis).

The depapillation of the tongue depends on the cause of inflammation.

Papillitis

Enlarged papillae or papillitis occurs when the taste buds are inflamed or irritated. The swollen taste buds can be painful. Inflammation of the lingual tonsil can cause papillitis.

Oral cancer

Oral cancer and subsequent chemotherapy cause damage to the papillae and patients suffer from impaired taste sensation or may lose their ability to taste.

Diabetes and its effect on the tongue papillae

The tongue has an even distribution of filiform and fungiform papillae. In patients with diabetes, the tongue appears fissured since diabetes alters the oral environment (by altering the rate of flow of saliva).

In a fissured tongue, the papillae distribution is not even anymore. Atrophy of tongue papillae gives rise to “bald” tongue which is characteristic of diabetics. Almost 30% of diabetic patients have atrophy of papillae of the tongue.

Treatment of the conditions which affect tongue papillae

Our tongue helps us taste the food, and none of us would probably want to lose this ability to taste. Here are a few tips and treatment protocols which will help you

  • Maintain oral hygiene and go for regular dental checkups.
  • Get yourself tested for diabetes.
  • Quit smoking or drinking alcohol (at least reduce the frequency of both).
  • Drink lots of water and stay hydrated.
  • Chew mint leaves to soothe enlarged papillae. Mint leaves are known to be helpful in treating enlarged papillae.
  • Eat a balanced diet to keep your tongue safe from nutrient deficiency diseases which affect the tongue.

Over to you

The tiny bumps on the tongue that are also known as tongue papillae help us perceive the wide variety of taste sensations. That is why we should clean our tongue regularly as a part of oral hygiene routine.

A clean tongue will be able to appreciate taste better than a tongue which has a layer of coating. In case if you feel something wrong with your tongue, such as altered taste or pain while eating, make sure to visit the dentist for a diagnosis.

Our tongue consists of numerous bumps on its dorsal surface that are called the tongue papilla. They contain taste buds.