What Your Tongue Says About Your Health
Sure, you may see a tongue briefly jut out when licking lips, playfully stuck out at a friend, or to indicate disgust, but the vast majority of the time, the tongue likely stays planted in the mouth, safely hidden away from the world. Yet sticking it out and examining it on the regular could offer clues about your general health.
The tongue and mouth perform vital functions—such as eating, speaking, and breathing. Examining the oral cavity, including the tongue, can indicate not only the health of the mouth and teeth but of systems throughout the body.
So, how can you tell if your tongue is “healthy”? The first thing to watch for is the color.
Healthy tongues range in color from shades of pale pink to light red with small bumps (papillae). Colors to watch for include:
• Dark red to purple, which could indicate a vitamin deficiency, such as folic acid or vitamin B12, an infection, a fever, or even a serious disease such as scarlet fever or Kawasaki disease. If you have a high fever with a bumpy, red tongue, please see a doctor immediately.
• Blue, which may be a sign that your circulation is poor and you aren’t getting enough oxygen, perhaps due to a respiratory issue or cardiovascular problems. A purplish or bluish tongue can also be a sign of a deficiency of B2 or riboflavin.
• Yellowish tongues can signify that you need to step up your oral hygiene as bacteria is building up. Or, it can also be caused by tobacco use or consuming excess alcohol or coffee. It can also simply indicate that your mouth is dry.
• A tongue that’s black in color and may even look “hairy” can be caused by the use of specific antibiotics or, sometimes, with the use of an antacid such as Pepto-Bismol. It can also indicate health issues such as diabetes.
Often, though, it’s the result of smoking or poor oral hygiene. Ensuring you improve how you take care of your mouth can sometimes resolve the issue and return the tongue to a more normal appearance. Fortunately, this condition is rare and typically not a serious cause for concern.
• White tongues or tongues with white spots may indicate a fungal or yeast infection in the mouth (aka oral thrush). The white patches often have a consistency similar to cottage cheese. This condition is most common in infants, the elderly, and folks who have a weakened immune system or use oral steroids or antibiotics due to illness.
White on the tongue can also be a sign of dehydration. Other conditions that can lead to a white color or white patches include leukoplakia, a condition where the cells in the mouth continue growing. It’s generally benign but can indicate the tongue is irritated, perhaps from tobacco use. It can also be a precursor to more serious conditions, including oral cancer.
Tongue Texture & Shape
Since you’re looking at your tongue and trying to determine its color, you might as well examine the texture and shape. Some tongues appear more or less bumpy. Here are some common signs worth noting:
• Painful bumps or ulcers may result from accidentally biting your tongue, burning your tongue on a hot drink for food, or common canker sores. They may also be a sign of smoking or oral cancers.
• Red or white bumps that go away in a couple of days or a week are of no concern. However, if there are white or red sores that don’t go away, they should be seen by a healthcare provider as they may be signs of oral cancer.
• Teeth marks or scalloped edges can form due to the way the tongue rests on the teeth, or it can be caused by grinding or clenching the teeth as you sleep.
• If the tongue looks thin, it may also indicate you are dehydrated.
What Your Tongue Says About Your Health: A Recap
Your tongue says a lot about your health. After brushing your teeth daily, stick out your tongue and take a quick peek to note any changes in color, texture, or pain level. And if you do notice a change in color or texture that doesn’t go away after a couple of weeks, make an appointment with a medical professional to make sure nothing serious is going on.