When you visit the dentist or care for your oral health at home, it’s usually your teeth and gums that get the most attention. But how often do you think of your tongue?
In fact, your tongue has a lot to say about your oral health, and even your overall bodily health too. It’s a very sensitive organ that responds quickly to various stimuli from both internal and external sources. Following is a list of tongue-based symptoms you could potentially see or feel, and what they may mean:
- Bright red tongue - Unless you’ve just finished a cherry popsicle, a bright red tongue could be cause for concern. Also known as “balding” of the tongue, this discoloration is caused by a loss of the papillae (the tiny surface bumps that give the tongue its characteristic rough texture), so the tongue will also feel very smooth.
- This is often a sign of a vitamin deficiency, especially B12 and/or iron. It can also be a symptom of severe fever. In both cases, ask your doctor about your symptoms to find out if any treatment is necessary.
- Brown or black “hair” - As unappealing as it sounds, “black, hairy tongue” (yes, that’s the clinical name of this condition) can actually be rather benign.
- In this case, the discoloration is caused by an overgrowth of papillae, which allows them to harbor far more bacteria and fungi than normal. Along with talking to your dentist, maintaining a proper brushing and flossing routine, using a tongue cleaner, and rinsing with antibacterial and anti fungal mouthwashes can help.
- White tongue surface - There are two unrelated conditions that can look very similar to the naked eye: the inside of your cheeks, roof of your mouth, and surface of your tongue appears white and lumpy. The easiest way to tell the difference between the two is to try to rub the white off. If it comes off, it may be thrush. If not, it could be leukoplakia.
- If you have a compromised immune system, especially if you’ve been taking antibiotics, it’s likely caused by oral thrush, a yeast infection that comes about when the natural breeding of candida fungus overpowers your body’s immune response, resulting in the thrush infection. Thrush is most common in infants, but it can affect anyone.
- Leukoplakia is considered a more precancerous condition. It’s often seen in smokers and others who are at risk of developing oral cancer. Leukoplakia is caused by a thick buildup of damaged cells across the mucous membrane that cannot be wiped or cleaned off. If you notice these white streaks or patches on surfaces of your cheeks or tongue, see a dentist as soon as possible for identification and possible treatment.
Abnormal patches or cracks
"If you notice these white streaks or patches on surfaces of your cheeks or tongue, see a dentist as soon as possible for identification and possible treatment."
- White patches - If leukoplakia and oral thrush have been ruled out, it’s possible for unexplained white patches on the tongue to be caused by continual abrasions or trauma, such as repeated biting of the tongue in the same spot or damage from ill-fitting dentures, mouthguards, and braces. These should go away on their own once the problem causing them is resolved.
- Wrinkles and crevices - Yes, even your tongue can succumb to the signs of aging and develop harmless wrinkles as you get older. Or, small cracks and fissures can form in the tongue’s surface naturally over time. This, in itself, is not a cause for concern. But it does provide one more convenient spot where bacteria and yeast can make an unwanted home. Focus on brushing and rinsing even more consistently if your tongue is wrinkled or cracked.
Sores and growths
- Simple sore - You can remember exactly when you got a simple abrasion or cut on your tongue. You were chewing gum or popcorn and suddenly your tongue was inexplicably between your teeth and you screamed in pain. Holding cool salt water in your mouth for several minutes after the initial injury can help ease the pain and clean out the cut.
- Canker sore - These common mouth ulcers (also called aphthous stomatitis) can be caused by a host of different issues ranging from immune response to allergies. Generally, they are not dangerous or a sign of more serious issues, although they can be painful for the 7-10 days it takes for them to run their course.
- Oral fibroma - An oral fibroma is a benign nodule or bump on the surface of the tongue caused by repeated trauma. It’s not dangerous and usually doesn’t hurt. It’s basically a kind of scar tissue that eventually develops to protect that spot on the tongue from being continually rubbed or bitten. Be sure to let your dentist know at your semiannual checkup if a nodule appears since your last visit.
- Oral cancer - This is the big danger, and the reason you should notify your dentist of any differences you see in your mouth. Oral cancer can present in a number of different ways, from small bumps to irregular raised patches on the tongue or inside of the cheeks, to persistent ulcers. If you have any abnormal growths or sores in your mouth that can’t be explained, the safest option is to have it examined by a medical professional immediately.
As with any unexplained changes to your mouth, teeth, gums, or tongue, you should have them checked out by a dentist as soon as possible. If you’re concerned about the cost of such a visit, a dental discount card can help you save on dental care quickly and easily.