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As we age and make different lifestyle changes, we also experience changes in our tastes for foods and beverages. It’s important to understand how a variety of factors will influence the development of your taste buds so you’re not surprised by a variation in your food preferences. Here are a few things that can alter how your taste buds interpret the tastes of foods.

Damage to the Nerves

The nerves in your mouth that connect to your brain relay messages of taste under normal conditions. However, something as simple as an ear infection or dental surgery can damage those nerves, interfering with your ability to taste foods as you normally would. In cases of surgical error or brain trauma, those changes can be permanent, but an ear infection may result in a temporary change. Additionally, facial nerve dysfunction, which can be caused by accidents that result in disfigurement, can also adversely affect your sense of taste.

Aging Decreases Taste

At birth, each person has more than 10,000 taste buds, but that number drops as taste buds die off through the years. The remaining taste buds won’t be as powerful and they will shrink in size, making it harder to distinguish between similar tastes. As a result, your palate won’t be as distinctive or selective as you get older. Fortunately, this process is gradual, so you’ll be less likely to notice these changes.

Substance Use Also Affects Taste

Smoking tobacco products or drinking alcohol will also affect your ability to taste foods by numbing the nerves that connect to your taste buds. This is why people who spend years drinking and smoking don’t taste food as well as others their own age. Research has found that this damage is only temporary. If you quit smoking or stop drinking, your sense of taste will improve. However, if you have reached your 30s and 40s when you quit, the natural loss of your taste buds will limit how much of your sense of taste can be restored.

It’s also important to be aware that some medications and bacterial infections can also affect the taste buds. This is why you may experience difficulty tasting anything when you feel sick. In most cases, these changes are temporary. However, if they seem permanent and you’re concerned, you should talk to your doctor.