A salty taste is one of the primary tastes in the mouth, along with sweet, sour, bitter and a savory taste known as umami. The various tastes a person experiences in life is a combination of these primary tastes. Although food and drink is the major trigger of the taste sensations, temperature, texture and other local factors may also be responsible. The taste sensation is also enhanced by the sense of smell.
Sometimes there is an abnormal taste sensation in the mouth. This is known as dysgeusia. It is abnormal in that there is no food, drink or other stimulus triggering the taste sensation yet a person is able to distinctively experience a certain taste sensation. One of these abnormal taste sensations is a salty taste in the mouth.
Salty Foods and Salty Drinks
Salty foods and drinks are the main source of a salty taste in the mouth. It is important to understand how the taste buds work in this regard. When we eat, food is chewed down and broken into smaller particles which then dissolves partially in the saliva within the mouth. Once saliva containing the food particles or fluid makes contact with the taste bud, it is stimulated and generates electrical impulses. The stronger the taste, the greater the stimulation. These impulses travel along the nerves to several nuclei in the brain known as the taste centers. The main taste buds are located on the tongue, but there are also taste buds on the soft palate, upper parts of the esophagus and epiglottis.
The taste sensation not only makes eating more pleasurable. It also helps the body to compel us to select certain foods for consumption thereby ensuring the intake right types of nutrients as is needed for health. Taste also stimulates memories and emotions which also plays a role in preference for certain foods and tastes. Soon after eliciting the taste sensation, the food or drink is swallowed but its taste lingers on gradually becoming less intense. It can persist for long periods until saliva or neutral tasting fluids like water wash it away from the taste bud. Food may also get trapped between the teeth, gum and cheek, under the tongue and in the crevasses of the tonsils. It can may then be dislodged at a later time and re-initiate the salty taste sensation even when a person is not eating. Drinking sufficient water and good dental hygiene ensures that this does not usually occur.
Causes of Salty Taste in Mouth
Apart from salty food and drinks, there are various other possible causes of a salty taste in the mouth. One of the possibilities that need to be considered is that a person is experiencing some other taste which they may not be able to identify or reports it as a salty taste.
Sometime mucus and pus from other sites may enter the mouth and cause a salty taste sensation. This is often seen with nasal infections (infectious rhinitis) and post-nasal drip. The various causes have been discussed under mucus in the mouth. Other substances like blood in the mouth and tears are two other possible sources of a salty taste sensation.
Injury to the mouth
Injury, either mechanical or chemical, cause inflammation of the tissue of the mouth including the tongue. It tends to dull normal activity like senses and therefore a person may not be able to experience taste sensation to the same degree. However, irritation of the sensory tissue in the mouth can also elicit abnormal taste sensations in some instances. This injury may not be specifically of the taste buds – even irritation or injury of the nerves carrying signals from the taste buds to the taste centers, as well as the taste centers in the brain can cause abnormal taste sensations.
Some of the cases may include :
- Vigorous brushing of the tongue
- Harsh mouth washes
- Drinking caustic agents
- Ill fitting dentures
- Chewing on hard objects like bones and other inedible substance
- Dental procedures
- Tobacco chewing
- Surgery to the head, neck and cranial cavity
- Acid reflux
Overall these are not common causes of a salty taste in the mouth that tends to persist but should be considered in the investigation. Injury to the soft palate, upper part of the esophagus and epiglottis may also be responsible for abnormal taste sensations. The taste centers in the brain may also be affected with traumatic brain injury, tumors and a stroke.
Infections can also disrupt normal taste by causing inflammation in the same way as trauma discussed above. However, infections particularly bacterial infections can also lead to the formation of pus. It is this pus that may give rise to the salty taste sensation in the mouth despite the lack of food. Oral candidiasis and mucormycosis (fungal infections) could also be involved in a salty taste sensation but this is not frequently reported. Some of the sites of infections that may be responsible includes :
- Stomatitis – mouth infection.
- Gingivitis – gum infection.
- Periodontitis – infection of the tissue around the teeth including the bone.
- Dental abscess
- Esophagitis – esophagus infection.
- Epiglottitis – infection of the epiglottis.
Sometimes the site of the infection may be brain (encephalitis) or linings around the brain (meningitis) which can affect the taste sensation among other brain functions. This may be seen with viral, bacterial and parasitic infections like malaria.
Loss of fluid leads to a changes in the water and electrolyte levels in the body. It also changes the composition of secretions such as saliva. Although saliva tends to have a neutral taste to most people, it is composed of a host of substances that may be able to trigger taste sensations. The components of saliva include mucus, the enzyme ptyalin, potassium and bicarbonate ions. Dehydration may affect the composition and the normal concentration of these substances in saliva. Furthermore, dehydration may have a host of effects on other biochemical processes in the body thereby impacting on the taste sensation.
Dehydration may arise with :
- Excess alcohol or caffeine consumption
- Inadequate fluid intake especially in hot climates or with strenuous physical activity
- Vomiting and diarrhea
- Diabetes mellitus
- Diabetes insipidus
- Medication like diuretics.
Salivary Gland Problems
Salivary gland disorders and diseases need to also be considered as possible causes of a salty taste sensation, especially when the saliva secretion is obstructed, the saliva concentrated, or mucus and blood enters the mouth from the salivary glands. Possible causes may therefore include :
- Sialadenitis – infected salivary glands
- Sjogren’s syndrome
- Sialolithiasis – salivary gland stones
- Surgery to the salivary gland and its ducts
- Salivary gland tumors
- Psychogenic (psychological origin)
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Medication like cancer drugs (chemotherapy) and thyroid drugs
Article reviewed by Dr. Greg. Last updated on May 6, 2012