What’s In Your Mouth?
By Howard J. Bennett
I thought I’d do an interactive column today. If you have a mouthful of cereal or toast, I’d like you to swallow, rinse your mouth with water and sit in front of a mirror. You might need a flashlight.
Open your mouth and look at your teeth, gums and tongue. These are the familiar parts of your mouth that you see every day without thinking about them. Now tilt your head back and look at the roof of your mouth, also known as the palate. There are two parts to the palate. The ridged part in the front is the hard palate and the squishy part in back is the soft palate. When you swallow, the soft palate is pushed back keeping food out of the nasal cavity.
Hanging down from the back of the soft palate is the uvula (YOO-vya-la). Most people have a single uvula. However, two percent of people have a bifid uvula, which means it has a forked appearance. (Note for Harry Potter fans: I wonder if bifid uvulas were more common in Slytherins?)
In the back of your mouth on either side of the uvula are your tonsils. They are pink lumps of tissue that have a pocked surface making them look a little like fleshy golf balls. Tonsils are part of your immune system, which is why they get infected with viruses and strep throat.
Now comes the hard part. Stick out your tongue as far as you can. Some tongues are harder to examine than others. If yours isn’t cooperating, I’m sure your dad will let you borrow his.
Do you see the big bumps on the back of your tongue? Most people have no idea what those bumps are or what they do. In fact, I often get calls from worried parents who were looking at their child’s tonsils when they noticed the back of his tongue looked like the surface of the moon! Rather than being a sign of some hideous disease, these odd-shaped bumps are called circumvallate (SIR-cum-val-ate) papillae.
The average tongue contains 5,000 taste buds. Although they are too small to see, taste buds sit on raised bumps called papillae that cover the upper surface of the tongue. There are four types of papillae: fungiform, foliate, filiform and circumvallate.
If you haven’t thrown up yet, curl your tongue so you can see its underbelly. The first thing you’ll notice is a thin band of pink tissue that connects the underside of the tongue to the floor of the mouth. This is called the frenulum. It helps fix your tongue to the floor of the mouth. (You have two smaller frenulums that attach the underside of your upper and lower lips to your gums.)
Finally, if you look at the floor of your mouth, you will notice that it’s moist. This is because you have hundreds of tiny salivary glands throughout your oral cavity. Although some kids think the purpose of saliva is to be able to spit, it actually contains chemicals that begin to digest starches in your mouth. That’s why a cracker will taste slightly sweet after you chew it.
Okay, time for you to go back to eating breakfast—or at least to close your mouth!
© 2012 Howard J. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.
(First published in the Washington Post 12/6/10.)
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