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A salty taste in the mouth is usually one that is similar to sodium chloride, or common table salt. Other elements can also elicit a salty taste sensation.
The salty taste can be accompanied by bitterness, sourness, or acidity. (1) The taste can also be described as metallic.
How does the sense of taste work?
The tongue is the main organ used for taste. Different types of cells detect each of the five basic tastes – sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. (3)
Umami is a savory taste that is associated with broths, soy sauces, and mushrooms.
The surface of the tongue is coated with tiny bumps called papillae. There are glands that help make and secrete saliva in these bumps. Papillae come in different shapes and sizes, and they house the taste buds. Taste buds are the true sensory organ involved in taste.
Cells that can detect taste are also found at the back of the throat, in the nasal cavity, and in the esophagus. A narrow passage called the taste pore connects the taste bud to the surface of the tongue.
Three to five tiny projections enter this pore from each taste cell in the taste bud. The projections are believed to be stimulated by substances that are ingested.
Small nerves innervate the taste buds. Most of the taste buds are found on the top of the tongue. Saliva and the movement of the tongue push the tasted materials into the grooves of the tongue and into the taste buds.
The main nerves involved in conducting taste are the lingual nerve, the glossopharyngeal nerve, and the vagus nerve.
The small nerves, when in contact with the chemical substance responsible for taste, activate the main nerve cells. The main nerves pass the information regarding the flavor to the brain.
About half of the sensory cells in the taste buds react to the five basic tastes. Each cell has its own sensitivity scale. A cell may be more reactive to salty, followed by sour. Another may be more reactive to umami, followed by sweet.
The full taste profile of something is experienced after all the sensory information from different parts of the tongue is combined.
The other half of the sensory cells and small nerves are specialized and only react to one taste. Their job is to transmit the intensity of the flavor. This information is also combined with the temperature, aroma, and texture of the product that is ingested. All of this information makes for a wide variety of possible flavor experiences. (4)
What can be the cause of a salty taste in the mouth?
A salty taste in the mouth can be due to several causes:
- An obvious cause behind having a salty taste in the mouth is eating salty foods. The human body needs to have a certain amount of sodium from salt as this mineral is necessary for life. If sodium levels in the body become too low, it can be fatal. Unfortunately, too much salt intake is also bad for health. (4)
A diet high in salt is a large risk factor for high blood pressure or hypertension. It is also a risk factor for cardiac events. (5)
- A salty or metallic taste in the mouth can also be a sign of bleeding. The gums can bleed due to periodontal disease. Even a toothbrush with hard bristles or sharp foods can scratch the inside of the mouth and make the gums bleed.
- When one has a dry mouth due to medications, tobacco use, or treatments for cancer, a salty taste can be experienced.
- Vomiting or bouts of diarrhea can cause dehydration, which leads to intense thirst, tiredness, and a salty taste in the mouth.
- Allergies or a postnasal drip that enables mucus from the nose to drip into the throat can cause a salty taste.
- Acid from the stomach that flows up into the throat, in a condition called acid reflux, can be perceived as a salty taste.
- An autoimmune disorder called Sjogren’s syndrome can lead to drying up of the salivary glands and cause dry mouth. This is called xerostomia and alters taste perception. Many patients with Sjogren’s syndrome complain of a salty taste in the mouth. (6)
- During pregnancy, the gums can bleed due to a change in hormone balance. This can cause a metallic or salty taste. During menopause, a change in taste may also occur. (2)(3)
- Damage to any of the nerves or parts of the brain associated with taste can cause a salty sensation in the mouth.
- Some denture adhesives used to keep dentures from slipping can cause a salty taste in the mouth.
How is the cause of a salty taste in the mouth diagnosed?
If you have been eating a lot of salty foods, such as chips, pickles, pretzels, and processed foods, and have a salty taste in the mouth, you would be able to realize it and lower your salt intake.
Your dentist can help diagnose bleeding gums or periodontal disease through a clinical examination and radiographs. Your dentist can also recommend a different denture adhesive.
Many medications can cause dry mouth and a salty taste. Ask your physician if your medication may be the cause.
Cancer treatment, especially radiation to the head and neck, can disable the salivary glands, resulting in a lack of saliva and a salty taste. Check with your oncology team if you experience such.
Your physician can help diagnose a salty taste in the mouth from an allergy or postnasal drip. Acid reflux and heartburn with a salty taste can be diagnosed by a physician.
Sjogren’s syndrome is a complex autoimmune condition and definitely requires the diagnosis of a physician. Blood tests and a physical exam will be performed.
A salty taste caused by brain injury or nerve damage will require a neurologist to diagnose the condition. Blood work, a physical examination, and brain scans will aid in making the diagnosis.
What are the medical treatment options for a salty taste in the mouth?
The medical treatment options depend on the cause of the salty taste. A diet low in salt and maintaining adequate hydration with caffeine-free drinks are helpful.
Dehydration can become a serious problem. In addition to a salty taste, extreme thirst can be experienced along with dark urine or a complete stoppage of urination.
The patient can become very confused, tired, and dizzy. Seizures, heat exhaustion, and kidney issues can occur.
If simply drinking liquids does not improve the symptoms, hospitalization will be necessary. The hospital will administer intravenous fluids and electrolytes to restore fluid and mineral balance.
Bleeding gums signal the beginnings of periodontal disease. A study found that a rinse of chlorhexidine gluconate effectively killed the bacteria in the mouth that are related to gum disease. In addition to killing bacteria, the rinse also reduced the intensity of a salty taste. (7)
If the salty taste is due to a medicine you are taking, your physician may be able to switch a medication to another effective one to alleviate the salty taste.
Over-the-counter rinses, sprays, and lozenges are available to increase moisture in your mouth. These may be used to counteract a salty taste.
Antihistamines may be used to counteract the postnasal drip from allergies. Antacids can be used for salty taste due to reflux.
Note: Always consult your healthcare provider before trying any remedy for the salty taste in your mouth, especially if you have a preexisting medical condition.
Are there any home remedies that may provide relief from a salty taste in the mouth?
Maintain adequate hydration, brush and floss your teeth thoroughly, rinse with products designed to restore moisture in the mouth and kill bacteria, and look into the side effects of the medication you are taking.
Manage allergies with antihistamines and possibly a humidifier. Eat less salty food. Switch denture adhesives if necessary. See your doctor if home remedies do not work.
What may be the complications of a salty taste in the mouth?
One complication of having a salty taste is not getting proper nutrition because eating is not enjoyed.
Conditions that affect the brain and nerves can affect the tongue and cause a salty taste. A tumor or multiple sclerosis can cause a salty taste and must be treated.
Ignoring a change in taste without knowing the cause could result in a worsening of the condition.
When to see a doctor?
If a salty taste persists and the reason for it is not known, see a physician or dentist.
Keep your mouth as healthy as possible. Stay hydrated. See a medical or dental professional if a salty taste persists.