It can be difficult to wait for your coffee to cool before taking that first, much needed sip. Sure, if you wait a bit the flavors will pop a bit more but sometimes the anticipation can get the best of you. And then there’s the burning, oh the burning, from taking a sip of coffee before it has had time to properly cool to a drinkable temperature. But it turns out, what constitutes a “drinkable temperature” is different from person to person. And those less able to handle hot drinks? They are said to have “cat tongue.”
As reported by Science Norway, the term is said to have originated in Japan. 猫舌 (ねこじた) Nekojita, translating literally to “cat tongue,” is used to describe folks who don’t have a tolerance for hot food and drinks. But what are the heat level differences between high- and low-tolerance individuals? One German study examined this very thing and found a range of at least 13°C (about 24°F) from the high to the low ends.
For the study, 87 participants were given a cup of coffee at a certain temperature and asked if it was too hot, too cold, or just right. The first cup was 58°C (136°F), and some participants stated that it was already too hot. Still, the last participant standing stated they didn’t experience any burning sensation until 71°C (160°F).
The mouth, it turns out, is particularly sensitive to heat. Along with containing several pain receptors, the mouth only has a thin mucous membrane that isn’t particularly effective at guarding against heat. So while the human body as a whole is better at tolerating pain from cold and pressure, the cumulative sensitivity to heat as well as the lack of protection in the mouth combine to give many cat tongue.
And it’s a pretty common phenomenon. One Japanese weather website ran a poll to see how many of their readers identified as having cat tongue. With more than 10,000 responses, 47% stated they had such a sensitivity to heat. Cat tongue was most common in individual in their 20s.
So if you are feeling bad about having to wait longer than most in order to enjoy that fresh cup of coffee, don’t! Yes, your pain tolerance may be lower than others, but that just means you get to drink more of your coffee at an ideal drinking temperature. And for your troubles you get a cute name to describe your malady.