If any part of the body can be called a multi-tasker, it’s the tongue. It tells us whether our food is too salty, our tea is too sweet or our wine has turned to vinegar. It helps us swallow and speak our minds. Yet we take it for granted, rarely even noticing this slippery item unless it hurts or gives us problems, such as painful bumps, furry growth or discoloring.
Our tongues provide clues to our health; that’s why doctors ask us to stick them out during routine office visits. The good news is, most tongue symptoms are minor matters, easily resolved—but occasionally they point to a condition that needs medical attention. These clues will help you know the difference:
Our tongues are covered with papillae, or tiny nodules, many of which contain our “taste buds.” These bumps can become temporarily inflamed and sore, especially after a slight trauma, such as biting the tongue. Occasionally, one many experience a canker sore, which can appear as a pimple on the tongue, or an inflamed papilla. Canker sores actually are small mouth ulcers that often occur when we have a cold or fever. Canker sores are painful, but usually heal by themselves in a week to 10 days. If it lasts longer it could signal mouth cancer, so see a doctor right away.
A tongue that appears to be coated with a white, pasty substance might be alerting you to an infection, or an autoimmune-related inflammatory disease. It also might be caused by thrush, or candidiasis,a sort of yeast-gone-wild bacterial overgrowth that’s easily treated with an anti-fungal medication. Treatment can be as simple as eating yogurt to restore the “good” oral bacteria. More serious is leukoplakia, a pre-cancerous condition that forms white patches in the mouth, often seen in smokers.
Any deviation from the tongue’s healthy pink color is a health clue. A dark brown or black tongue usually is brought on by something you ate or drank, especially if the color change is sudden. Taking a medication containing bismuth, such as Pepto Bismol, also can turn the tongue black for a short time.
If your mouth felt “hairy” the last time you woke up with a dry mouth, it’s because dry mouth is one of the conditions that causes the tongue’s papillae to elongate—actually growing overnight—creating “fur” on the tongue. Filiform papillae (one of four kinds of papillae on the tongue) are made of keratin, the same material found in hair, though papillae are not hair—they just look like it during their sudden growth spurts. A bacterial infection or taking antibiotics also can cause filiform papillae to grow.
A mouth infection, either bacterial or fungal, can sometimes show up as a yellowish tongue. It also might be caused by gastric reflux. Both conditions can only be diagnosed by a doctor.
Although it looks strange and can cause discomfort, geographic tongue isn’t a serious condition. Patches of missing papillae, replaced by smooth, red, island-like lesions, give the tongue a map-like appearance. The lesions can change in size, shape and location daily, even hourly. No one knows what causes geographic tongue, though family history may be a factor, along with diabetes, stress, allergies and use of oral contraceptives. But although the lesions may be frightening, they’re not linked to infections or cancer.
Oral dysesthesia, or burning mouth syndrome, affects mostly post-menopausal women and may be caused by hormone-related nerve changes. It can attack the tongue or the entire mouth and might also be linked to bacterial infections, dry mouth or nutritional issues. Treatments include prescription medicines (anti-anxiety or anti-depressants), chewing gum or drinking water to relieve the symptoms. A related condition is glossodynia, another burning-tongue disorder, often associated with the use of diuretics (water pills), and medications for diabetes and blood pressure. Treatments often overlap with those prescribed for burning mouth syndrome.
When the tongue presents a pale, smooth appearance, anemia is a frequent diagnosis. Paleness develops because anemic blood is deficient in iron and doesn’t carry enough oxygen to the mouth to keep the mouth tissues in the pink. As the anemia is treated, the tissues—including the tongue—will again take on their healthy color.
Sometimes called furrowed or grooved tongue, scrotal tongue is easy to spot—the tongue simply looks wrinkled, or grooved—and it’s usually harmless. Most people with this condition are born with it; scrotal tongue can appear alone or with geographic tongue. It also may appear in children born with Down syndrome. While it’s a lifelong condition, it presents no discomfort or medical problems.
Get the information you need to improve your health and wellness on Healthline.com.
Foods for the Heart. Find heart-healthy ingredients to swap into your diet.
Cooking Tips for Crohn’s Disease. Use these simple tips to take some of the work out of planning and preparing meals.
Tour the Body in 3D. Explore different layers of the human body.
Foods That Build Strong Bones. Eating the right foods can keep your bones healthy and strong.