What your tongue can say about your oral health

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November 6th, 2017

Even without speaking a word, your tongue can say a lot. The color, texture and patterns of your tongue can provide insight into the state of your oral and overall health. What is your tongue trying to tell you?

  1. White coating: A tongue that appears white is usually the result of overgrown papillae, the small bumps found on the surface of the tongue, and a buildup of food debris or plaque bacteria. It is more common in people with dry mouth or poor oral hygiene. When this overgrowth becomes stained by food, drink or other causes, your tongue may develop a black or brown tint.
  2. Black or brown tint: Dark discoloration, a condition known as black hairy tongue, is usually the result of an overgrowth of the little projections on the surface of the tongue called papillae. The overgrowth can pick up stains from smoking or various foods, drinks and medications. It may be the result of poor oral hygiene, dry mouth, tobacco use or certain medications. Most of the time, black hairy tongue goes away with proper hygiene and the elimination of causes such as tobacco.
  3. White patches: These may be linked to an overgrowth of yeast in your mouth, also called thrush, or candidiasis. It occurs most often in newborns, pregnant women, the elderly, people with dry mouth, denture wearers, people on antibiotics, and people with weakened immune systems and certain health conditions such as diabetes. This is usually easily treated with anti-fungal medication.
  4. Smooth, red and patchy looking with a white border: Areas resembling this description can be indicative of a harmless and common condition known as geographic tongue. These areas may appear to move around and may be sore and irritated by spicy foods. The cause of geographic tongue is not known, but it can run in families.
  5. White lacy pattern: A pattern like this on your tongue and/or inner cheeks may be a sign of oral lichen planus, which means your immune system is fighting against the cells in your mouth. There may also be sore red patches.
  6. A yellowy-tinted tongue may indicate acid reflux, infection or an early stage of black hairy tongue.
  7. Pale and smooth: A pale tongue can indicate low iron levels or anemia.
  8. “Strawberry” patterned: A swollen and bumpy tongue (the color and bumps look a little like a strawberry) may be an indication of strep throat, food or drug allergies or a blood vessel disease called Kawasaki disease.

Most common tongue conditions are harmless and go away on their own or with simple measures, such as good oral hygiene, healthy diet, and hydration, as well as lifestyle changes such as quitting tobacco use. Sometimes, tongue signs and symptoms may indicate more serious problems including oral cancer, infections or systemic disorders. Be sure to contact your dentist or physician after a week or two if you notice your tongue has turned a peculiar hue, looks abnormal or feels sore or painful. They can diagnose and treat the problem as necessary.