What Your Tongue is Trying To Tell You About Your Health

We don’t spend much time thinking about our tongues, but they're so important.

The tongue is the organ that helps us taste our food, move it around so we can chew it, and then swallow it. It helps keep our teeth clean and helps us to speak.

Beyond those essential functions, the tongue acts as a signpost for our body’s health.

When our doctors tell us to stick our tongues out and say, “Aaahh,” it’s more than just so they can see our throats.

A healthy person’s tongue is pink, dotted with tiny bumps called papillae. An unhealthy tongue looks different.

4 Ways Your Tongue Can Alert You to Health Problems

1. When Your Tongue has White Spots or a White Coating

  • A white tongue can be caused by a yeast infection called “thrush”. It looks like cottage cheese in the mouth. It can be a sign of a weakened immune system.
  • Sometimes the cells in the mouth grow too quickly and the result is patches of white all over the tongue. This is called leukoplakia. It can just be irritation, but can also be a sign that tobacco use has led to cancer. See your dentist if you develop these white patches.

2. When Your Tongue is Bright Red

  • Most parents have seen the telltale red tongue that comes with scarlet fever. It is usually accompanied by a high fever and sore throat. If you have scarlet fever, you need antibiotics.
  • Sometimes a red, smooth, painful tongue is an sign of a deficiency in folic acid and vitamin B-12. It is an inflammatory condition called atrophic glossitis. Though you can take multivitamins, a better way to get these vitamins is by eating foods like liver, beans and spinach.

3. When Your Tongue is Black and Hairy

  • It almost goes without saying that if your tongue is black and hairy, there is something wrong. What you are seeing is not actually hairs but the papillae of the tongue that have become very long. When this happens, bacteria can grow and that turns it black.

A black hairy tongue looks scary but it's not always serious, though it may be a sign of diabetes.

People who are taking chemotherapy drugs to treat cancer can also get black, hairy tongues.

4. When Your Tongue Hurts or Has Big Bumps

  • The most obvious cause of a painful tongue is trauma. This can be as simple as burning your tongue on hot food or drink or biting your tongue.
  • If you are a smoker, then your tongue may be painful. The obviously best answer is to stop smoking, as it is extremely harmful to your health.
  • Mouth sores called ulcers or canker sores are generally caused by stress. They will usually resolve within a few days.
  • Lumps or bumps on the tongue that do not clear up within a few days or weeks can be a sign of oral cancer. You should see your doctor as soon as possible.

Yours in Health,


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