Your tongue helps you talk and eat. But what does your tongue say about your health? Could you be ignoring serious health warnings?
A healthy tongue is slightly pink in color, moist, and covered with tiny projections called papillae.
But when your tongue becomes discolored, swollen, stiff, sore or displays unusual features, take notice – your tongue is trying to tell you something.
Sometimes a change in our tongue is a simple vitamin deficiency or merely a sign you need to pay a little more attention to dental hygiene. But it can also be a sign of something more serious.
Take a close look at your tongue in the mirror right now, then compare what you find with these tongue health warnings:
#1: White Tongue
Do you notice a whitish coating or white spots on your tongue? It could be one of the following health warnings:
- Dehydration — Are you staying properly hydrated? Dehydration can cause a white coating to develop on the tongue. Simply drink more water to remedy this condition.
- Oral thrush — Thrush is a yeast infection (Candida) that appears as whitish, velvety sores on your tongue and the mucus membrane lining of your mouth. Thrush is most common in infants and the elderly, denture wearers, and people with compromised immune systems. Antibiotic use also makes you more susceptible to thrush.
- Leukoplakia — Leukoplakia refers to an excessive growth of cells leading to white patches inside the mouth and on the tongue, most commonly found after the tongue has been irritated and linked to tobacco use. While leukoplakia is usually harmless it can be a precursor to cancer.
#2: Black Hairy Tongue
Black hairy tongue can affect anyone, but antibiotic use, smoking, drinking a lot of coffee, and dehydration all increase your likelihood of developing this unsightly disorder.
When the small bumps on the surface of your tongue, called papillae, grow longer than normal they are more likely to harbor bacteria and yeast as well as become stained by the foods and drinks you consume and tobacco you use. These stains and bacterial buildup can darken the papillae making the overgrown papillae appear hair-like.
The good news: black hairy tongue is an unsightly but harmless condition that usually goes away on its own. Gently brush your tongue with a soft toothbrush or tongue scraper a couple times a day to help eliminate it faster.
#3: Red or Strawberry Tongue
Has your tongue taken on the appearance of a strawberry with enlarged, red taste buds dotting the surface? Possible reasons for the change include:
- Kawasaki disease – Typically appearing in children under age five, Kawasaki disease (KD) can also affect older children and teens. KD is a serious disorder which causes inflammation of blood vessels throughout the body. The strawberry tongue often appears along with a high fever. Seek medical attention when a red tongue accompanies a high fever.
- Scarlet fever – This streptococcal infection can cause a strawberry tongue. Again, contact your doctor immediately if you have a high fever and red tongue.
- Vitamin deficiencies – Check your diet. Deficiencies of folic acid and vitamin B-12 can also cause your tongue to take on a reddish appearance. Easily remedied with a quality supplement.
#4: Bumps, Lumps, and Sore Tongue
Is your tongue sore? Are you experiencing painful bumps on the surface? It could be caused by any of the following:
- Increased stress can cause canker sores to develop and worsen.
- Smoking can irritate your tongue and make it sore.
- Trauma can occur from biting your tongue or scalding it on something hot.
- A burning sensation sometimes affects post-menopausal women.
- Enlarged papillae, due to an irritated taste bud, can swell and become painful.
- Medical conditions such as diabetes and anemia can cause a sore tongue.
- Oral cancer is a possibility. Consult a doctor if a lump or sore lasts longer than two weeks.
#5: Numbness or Tingling Sensations
What about the absence of feeling and sensation in your tongue?
Numbness or tingling sensations most commonly occur due to some type of damage to your nervous system. Damage to the nerve that supplies the tongue has been reported as a complication of dental procedures or surgery such as wisdom tooth extraction, implants, or root canal procedures.
Some brain conditions such as a stroke can also damage the nerves leading to the tongue leading to numbness, tingling or other loss of sensation.
How to Get and Keep a Healthy Tongue
If you’re serious about good tongue health, then you should know that brushing and flossing your teeth aren’t enough. You need to clear bacteria from your tongue, too. Either use a tongue scraper or gently brush your tongue with a soft toothbrush twice a day to help maintain good tongue health.
More Tips for a Healthy Tongue
- Quit smoking and using tobacco products
- Brush twice a day and floss on a regular basis
- Gargle with salt water
- Eat organic yogurt with natural probiotics
- Reduce alcohol intake
- Rinse your mouth after you eat
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PubMed Health. Thrush. U.S. National Library of Medicine. 2011 Aug 24.
Oral Health Center. Tongue Problem Basics. WebMD.
Wadyka S. What Your Tongue is Telling You About Your Health. MSN Health & Fitness. 2011 Feb 26.
Numbness or Tingling Sensation in the Tongue Symptoms. MedicineNet.com.
Tongue Problems. The New York Times. 2011 Mar 5.