You might have seen doctors asking their patients to open up their mouth and say “ahhh.” Do you know that a close look at the inside your mouth can reveal many facts about your health?
Though often hailed as the “strongest muscle in the body” the tongue is made up of a group of muscles that allow us to taste food, swallow, and talk. A healthy tongue is pink in color and is covered with small nodules called papillae. EHC believes that tongue is a microcosm of the entire body and will reflect its excesses and deficiencies. Let’s have a closer look at the tongue.
Run your fingertip across the surface of your tongue, and you should feel lots of tiny nodules that feel slightly hairy or fuzzy. These nodules are called papillae, and they are actually small hairs between which your taste buds are scattered. Changes to these hairs may have no rhyme or reason and be totally harmless, or they may be a symptom of an underlying condition.
Smooth: Your tongue may feel smooth due to a nutritional deficiency. A pale, smooth tongue could be a sign of iron-deficiency anemia or a lack of B vitamins, which are important to the body’s use of food for energy.
Map-like patches: If you spot patchy lesions on the tongue that seem to change location from day to day, you may have a harmless but sometimes uncomfortable condition called geographic tongue. It is thought that B vitamin deficiency may be to blame for this tongue surface change, but it could also be due to irritation by alcohol or certain foods.
Wrinkles: A tongue that bears grooves, wrinkles, or furrows could be scrotal tongue, a harmless, usually inborn condition that can rarely cause burning sensations when spicy foods are eaten and make it difficult to keep the tongue properly clean and clear of bacteria.
Sores: We have all bitten our tongue at one time or another, perhaps hard enough to leave a sore spot. In some instances, a spot on the tongue can be a result of something more than surface trauma. A bump on top of the tongue could be a warning of bacterial or viral infection or of an allergic reaction to a food or medication. A white or gray lesion with a hard surface that feels thick and raised from the tongue could be leukoplakia, a disorder of the mucous membranes. A sore or lump on one side of the tongue may be a sign of cancer and should be looked at by a doctor. Untreated syphilis can develop into a cancer on the top of the tongue.
You have probably noticed how your tongue can change color depending on what you eat. Remember all of the rainbow colors you could achieve as a kid sucking on popsicles! Color variation of the tongue from the usual healthy pink may be a sign that you are overdoing it with certain habits or it could signal an underlying condition.
Black: From time to time, a person’s tongue may take on a black, hairy appearance. “Black hairy tongue” is a harmless, temporary, but unsightly overgrowth of tongue “hair” (papillae) that traps bacteria and other mouth debris. Poor oral hygiene could be the culprit, as could mouth-breathing, excessive use of tobacco, mouthwashes, or some antibiotics. Black hairy tongue resolves on its own, but check with a doctor if symptoms last beyond 10 days or so.
Yellow: An overgrowth of papillae on the tongue can trap bacteria and appear yellow. These small hairs that coat the tongue can become inflamed by, among other things, smoking, fever, mouth-breathing, and dehydration. Improve your oral hygiene, and the yellow hue should subside.
White: White tongue often means the same thing as black or yellow tongue – bacteria stuck in dense tongue hair. And it shares some of the same causes, too: smoking, dehydration, dry mouth due to mouth-breathing. Pay special attention to your brushing and flossing habits, and add a tongue scraper to your oral hygiene routine.
Red: A red tongue more often signals underlying problems in children’s health. A strawberry or raspberry-colored tongue can be one of the first symptoms of scarlet fever or Kawasaki disease.
Any time that you notice pain, burning, swelling, changes in your ability to taste, abnormal movements, or difficulty moving the tongue, do not hesitate to see a doctor.
The tongue coating and moisture levels give you further insight into your condition.
White coating: When the tongue looks sort of white and pasty, it is an indication that there is probably some sort of infection present on the tongue, such as a bacterial overgrowth or an autoimmune-related inflammatory disease.
Dark appearance: A healthy tongue should have a warm, pinkish color, so when it looks dark brown or black, check your diet, lifestyle or your medicine cabinet. The papillae on the top of the tongue can easily take on stains or various colors from the foods, drinks, antibiotics, lozenges, etc. that you consume. While the staining may not be permanent, beware that any kind of tobacco use increases your risk of oral cancer.
Dry tongue: Dryness of the tongue is often caused by swelling of the salivary glands, the fleshy bulgy sacs under the tongue where saliva is produced. This is often caused by stress. Regulate stress by relaxation routines such as breathing or yoga.
Burning sensation: Burning mouth syndrome, also called oral dysesthesia, is a specific, not well-understood condition that goes far beyond simply eating certain foods that cause a temporary stinging sensation. The condition is characterized by pain and burning that can affect just the tongue or the entire mouth. A cure is elusive, but some of the current treatments for managing burning mouth syndrome include drinking water more frequently, chewing gum (to combat dry mouth), or taking anti-anxiety or anti-depressant drugs.
With your tongue sending you signals about your entire system, the more familiar you are with its language, the better health decisions you will be able to make for yourself.