When it comes to your health, you may be used to looking out for differences in your energy levels, your skin, and blood pressure. One often overlooked window into your health includes your tongue.
While your dentist will look at your tongue for any clues pertaining to oral cancer, there’s other changes you can be on the lookout for yourself. Generally speaking, any significant changes in color or the development of pain and lumps may indicate a health problem. However, there’s a wide range of possible changes to your tongue, all with different outcomes.
Numerous problems can affect your tongue, such as:
• changes in taste
• changes in color
• changes in texture
When a tongue is unhealthy
These problems often aren’t serious. However, sometimes your symptoms might occur due to an underlying condition that requires medical treatment. One of the first noticeable symptoms of an unhealthy tongue is a significant change in color from the normal pink shade you’re used to seeing.
Other signs of concern can include pain when eating, drinking, and swallowing, as well as new lumps and bumps.
Below are possible causes of tongue abnormalities based on color. This list only serves as a guide. Be sure to see your doctor right away if you notice any of these changes.
Thick, white patches or lines on the tongue are one of the most common issues that can affect an otherwise healthy tongue. Some causes are harmless, while others need medication and careful attention.
One possible cause is oral thrush. The Candida albicans fungus causes it, creating thick, white to green cottage cheese–like patches on top of the tongue as well as the insides of your cheeks.
Leukoplakia consists of thick white patches in the mouth and tongue. Unlike the fungus that causes oral thrush, leukoplakia occurs due to cell overgrowth in your mouth. A dentist usually diagnoses leukoplakia. Some cases are benign, while others could lead to cancer.
Sometimes red patches with white borders on the tongue could be a sign of a condition calledgeographic tongue. The name refers to the maplike appearance of the tongue patches. It affects about 1 to 2.5 percent of people in all age groups. This condition is usually harmless, though the patches may shift positions over time.
An often less serious tongue color is yellow. Bacterial overgrowth primarily causes yellow tongue. Other causes may include:
• chewing tobacco
• taking certain vitamins
• jaundice, but this rare
Black and hairy
A black and hairy tongue may look concerning, but it’s usually harmless. Bacterial overgrowth on the tongue most commonly causes it. Your tongue may look dark yellow, brown, or black. Also, the papillae may multiply, giving off the “hairy” appearance.
This tongue condition may develop from:
• poor oral hygiene
• taking antibiotics
• chemotherapy treatments
“When these bacteria grow, they may look dark or black, and the overgrown papillae can appear hair-like,” Dr. Allan says. “Fortunately, this condition is not common and is typically not serious. It’s most likely to occur in people who don’t practice good dental hygiene.”
Sore and bumpy
Have a doctor diagnose any new soreness or bumps on the tongue. Soreness and bumps may be even more concerning if you’re also experiencing pain.
Tongue soreness and bumps may result from:
• tobacco use, especially smoking
• mouth ulcers (canker sores)
• accidental tongue biting
• tongue burns from hot food and liquid
A Red tongue
The following conditions may cause your tongue to appear red or purple rather than pink in color, A red tongue could be a sign of:
“Folic acid and vitamin B-12 deficiencies may cause your tongue to take on a reddish appearance,” Dr. Allan says. A simple blood test is available to determine these levels.
This condition causes a map-like pattern of reddish spots to develop on the surface of your tongue. “These patches can have a white border around them, and their location on your tongue may shift over time,” says Dr. Allan. “Geographic tongue is usually harmless.
An infection that causes the tongue to have a strawberry-like (red and bumpy) appearance. “If you have a high fever and a red tongue, you need to see your family doctor,” Dr. Allan says. “Antibiotics are necessary to treat scarlet fever.”
Causes of Unhealthy tongue
Swelling or enlargement of the tongue, referred to as macroglossia, can be caused by allergies, medications, injuries, or an underlying medical condition such as amyloidosis. Addressing the underlying condition is the usual treatment for macroglossia. Allergic reaction to medications, food, or even a bee sting can cause swelling of the tongue.
Symptoms of tongue problems
Possible symptoms that you may experience related to your tongue include:
• a partial or complete loss of taste or changes in your ability to taste sour, salty, bitter, or sweet flavors
• difficulty moving your tongue
• tongue swelling
• a change from the normal color of your tongue or patches of color that are white, bright pink, black, or brown
• pain either all over the tongue or only in certain spots
When to see a doctor
Your primary care doctor will look at your tongue during your annual physical. At your dental cleanings, either the hygienist or dentist will take a look at your tongue as part of your exam.
Still, it’s important to keep track of any changes in your tongue throughout the year.
As a good rule of thumb, see your doctor if you notice any significant changes in the color of your tongue, especially if it lasts longer than 2 weeks. Also call your doctor if you have pain, swelling, or lumps on the tongue. The earlier that any tongue issues — and their underlying causes — are diagnosed, the quicker you can receive treatment.