As a dentist, I see a lot of tongues. I know — shocking! But what you may not realize is that I look at each one very closely because a patient’s tongue is a window into his or her health. In this post, I’m going to explain why, share what you need to know about tongues, and even give you a roadmap for “listening” to your own tongue.
First, did you know that your tongue is both muscular and an organ? It’s a remarkable body part that’s too easily overlooked — even though you probably see it in the mirror every day!
In fact, it is a complex, strong, and flexible fleshy piece of muscles, glands, fat, and mucous membrane. Your tongue serves multiple purposes, and it works with both the digestive and central nervous systems. In other words, it’s vital for chewing, swallowing, tasting, and speaking.
From birth, it plays an important role in digestion. Thanks to its mobility, it allows infants to suckle. As you grow and age, the tongue works with your cheeks to keep food in place as you chew and plays an important role in speech. Without it, you’d be hard-pressed to talk, eat, or drink.
What’s more, the up to 10,000 taste buds it houses makes eating and drinking more fun! Taste buds — cells that connect with nerves — are found in the apparent bumps on top of your tongue. Working with other nerves all over the tongue, taste buds help tell the brain whether something you’re tasting is sweet, sour, bitter, salty, or umami.
So, what else do you need to know about tongues? And how do you figure out what yours is trying to tell you? Read on.
What Does A Healthy Tongue Look And Feel Like?
A healthy tongue is pink and moist, thanks to saliva-producing glands. The average tongue is about 10 centimeters long. It has small white and pink bumps called papillae that give it a unique texture. These “bumps” are actually hair-shaped, and that’s where your taste buds live.
A healthy tongue is strong, pain-free, and doesn’t get tired — no matter how much you eat or talk! It is anchored, at the back of your mouth, to your head and neck by various muscles.
One more thing – Rolling your tongue (or not) is just a party trick — it doesn’t tell you whether or not your tongue is healthy.
11 Things Your Tongue Says About Your Health
Your tongue sends signs about your wellness, diseases, disorders, and other health factors with a range of symptoms, including specific sensations (like pain) and how it looks (discoloration, blisters, etc.). Here are 11 symptoms and what they may mean:
Bumps on the Tongue
Small bumps are normal but sore or bigger-than-usual bumps aren’t. A large, sore bump that comes and goes probably isn’t anything to worry about. Certain foods, drinks and chemicals can cause inflammation. A large bump that doesn’t go away could be oral cancer and should certainly be assessed by a professional. If you have a question about a bump on your tongue, never hesitate to ask your oral health care provider.
Coating and/or Plaque
Bacteria, dead cells, and debris can build up on your tongue to cause a coating. Many lifestyle factors can cause this including smoking, medications, dehydration, and/or a lack of cleaning.
If you have a persistent ulcer-type blister or growth on your tongue, you should get it checked out ASAP. It may be oral cancer, which is often diagnosed among heavy drinkers and smokers. It could also be a canker sore, a common but painful sore that heals in a few days.
If your tongue looks white, or has white spots or white lines, it may simply be coated with a build-up (which can be cleaned) or it can signal something more serious. While a white tongue may be caused by dry mouth, dehydration, smoking, drinking too much alcohol, or even fever, it is a symptom also associated with several conditions:
- Oral thrush is a candida infection, a type of yeast that grows in someone’s mouth, often when they take steroids or have a weak immune system.
- Oral leukoplakia appears in white spots that stick around; it’s a bunch of cells that may be benign or cancerous.
- Oral lichen planus looks like white lines across your tongue, and it usually clears itself up.
A yellow-looking tongue often results from build-up (from dead cells) or stains (from tobacco or food) on your tongue. However, if you have yellow skin as well, you might have jaundice, which is often associated with liver or gallbladder issues.
Black or Dark Tongue
If your tongue looks very dark, it’s likely that the hair-like “bumps” on the surface of your tongue have grown so long they’ve trapped bacteria and need a good cleaning. This may also be a side effect of diabetes or medication.
If your tongue is more red than pink, you might have a vitamin deficiency, such as of folic acid or B12. If you also have a fever, scarlet fever is a risk.
Patches on the Tongue
If you have smooth, red patches on your tongue, which may have visible ridges and borders and look like a map or islands, you may have a condition called geographic tongue. While this condition may cause some discomfort or pain, in particular when eating certain spices or foods, it’s generally considered a minor inflammatory condition. If it sticks around for more than a week, be sure to get it checked out by a medical professional.
Sore and Painful Tongue
While biting or burning your tongue can cause painful inflammation, a pain that doesn’t go away within a week or more could indicate something significant, including cancer. Again, never hesitate to ask an oral health professional.
If your tongue size changes, it’s time to see a professional. An enlarged tongue can signal serious diseases, including cancer or thyroid disease. But if you have a consistently large tongue in general, be on the lookout for sleep apnea. Research has shown that larger tongues with higher fat content may be correlated to sleep apnea, a disruptive and serious sleep disorder. If you feel tired often and snore frequently, talk to your doctor and dentist about it.
Caused by toxins, bacteria, dry mouth or foods such as garlic, bad breath — aka halitosis, can often be resolved by a good mouth-cleaning! Ideally, brush your teeth and tongue after every meal, and a minimum of two times a day. Be sure to include a thorough flossing and rinsing with mouthwash prior to brushing, and use a toothpaste containing fluoride. See your dentist regularly. Staying hydrated can also prevent dry mouth. If your bad breath sticks around, speak with your dentist to check for other causes and treatments.
How To Clean Your Tongue
You floss AND brush, right? Take it from me and the patients I see every day at my clinic: You should. What’s more, as part of your daily routine, you should clean your tongue. While a thorough tooth-brushing and flossing session helps to remove bacteria and plaque from inside the mouth (which helps combat gum disease and tooth decay), cleaning your tongue is part of the deep-clean you need!
Some tongues have grooves, where nasty bacteria can get trapped, and the bumps that house your tastebuds can snare not-so-nice things, too. There are two ways to clean your tongue:
- One option is to lightly brush your tongue with your toothbrush after brushing your teeth. (Be warned: It might tickle!)
- A more effective method is to use a tongue scraper, a tool that you place at the back of your tongue and pull forward a few times. You’ll notice fresher breath and less build-up. For detailed instructions on tongue scraping and why it’s such a great oral hygiene practice – read 6 Benefits of Tongue Scraping.
Cleaning your tongue daily also gives you the chance to check for changes. Keep your eyes open for discoloration, sores, and any symptoms. If they don’t go away within a week or two, be sure to alert your dentist or another medical professional. Your tongue (and the rest of your body) will thank you.
Photo: M&R Glasgow