What Your Tongue Can Tell You About Your Oral Health

What Your Tongue Can Tell You About Your Oral Health

You probably don’t think much about your tongue, other than the role it plays in tasting and swallowing. But it also provides an important window into your oral and overall health. By paying attention to the signs and symptoms your tongue exhibits, you can potentially catch dental or health problems early on and schedule an appointment with your dentist or primary care physician.

What is the Color of My Tongue Telling Me?

In order to be aware of changes in your tongue, you need to know what a healthy tongue looks like. It is typically pink, but it can also look lighter or darker. Tiny bumps called papillae cover it, giving it a rough surface. Your tongue should also feel and appear well-moistened.

When brushing your teeth, you should brush or scrape your tongue to remove any bacteria. This is an ideal time to check your tongue in the mirror to learn what it usually looks like and be aware of any changes as they occur. Our blog post — “Should You Brush Your Tongue?” — covers this topic in greater detail.

As for colors other than pink, Caputo Dental provides the following guide to what they can indicate:

White — A white tongue may signify oral thrush, a fungal infection due to a weakened immune system, antibiotic use, or diabetes.

Orange — Poor oral hygiene is the most common cause of an orange tongue. It could also result from dry mouth, taking certain antibiotics such as rifampin, or eating foods high in beta-carotene, like sweet potatoes.

Red to purple — A red or purple tongue could be a sign of a vitamin deficiency, such as B12 or folic acid deficiency. It could also indicate a bacterial or viral infection, inflammation, or trauma to the tongue.

Yellow — A yellow tongue could indicate dehydration, oral thrush, or a medical condition, such as jaundice, psoriasis, or liver disease.

Black — A black tongue is usually caused by the buildup of bacteria, debris and dead cells on the tongue’s surface. This condition is known as black hairy tongue and can occur due to poor oral hygiene, smoking, medication use, radiation therapy, and certain medical conditions like diabetes.

Blue — A blue tongue can indicate poor circulation or oxygen deprivation. It could also be a side effect of medication or a sign of a more serious condition, such as cyanosis or methemoglobinemia.

Although your tongue itself may not change color, it could have a coating — which also can indicate oral health or medical issues. Some common tongue coatings include the following:

Thick coating — A thick coating on your tongue could indicate poor oral hygiene, oral thrush, or leukoplakia.

Yellow coating ­— A yellow coating on your tongue could mean an infection or inflammation in your mouth. It could also be a side effect of medication use, such as bismuth subsalicylate-containing medicines, or a sign of dehydration.

Gray or black coating — A gray or black coating signifies a fungal infection or an accumulation of dead skin cells. It could also be a side effect of medication use or a sign of a more serious condition, such as oral cancer.

Thick white coating ­— A thick white coating on your tongue could be oral thrush, leukoplakia, or bacterial infection. It could also indicate poor oral hygiene or a weakened immune system.

What is the Texture of My Tongue Telling Me?

Changes in tongue texture also are important to observe. According to Golden State Dentistry, “If your tongue is smooth and glossy, it could indicate a deficiency in certain vitamins or minerals. On the other hand, a rough or bumpy tongue might be a sign of a condition called geographic tongue, which causes irregular patches and can sometimes be uncomfortable.”

Other changes in texture to look out for include the following:

Scalloped edges — Scalloped edges on your tongue can be a sign of teeth grinding (bruxism), a misaligned bite, or sleep apnea. This is due to consistently pressing your tongue on your teeth to open up your airway or when clenching your teeth. The condition can be caused by dehydration, anxiety, Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Disorders and nutritional deficiencies. Treatment will depend on the root cause of the problem.

Thin tongue A thin tongue indicates a thyroid disorder or malnutrition.

What are Bumps and Ulcers on My Tongue Telling Me?

Your tongue incorporates four types of papillae – which are the small, natural bumps that cover the surface of the tongue. The four types of papillae are filiform, fungiform, circumvallate and foliate. You usually don’t take particular notice of them unless they become enlarged. Colgate explains such changes as follows:

“Circumvallate and foliate papillae are normally large enough to be seen with the naked eye, but sometimes a papilla grows unusually large due to irritation or inflammation. This condition is called transient lingual papillitis. An accidental bite to the tongue or irritation from foods or chemicals can cause enlarged papillae. Transient lingual papillitis may also be caused by nutritional deficiencies, smoking, alcohol consumption, plaque build-up or dental appliances. The condition is temporary and often resolves on its own.

“Tongue bumps can appear as blisters, ulcers and lumps. According to the Merck Manual, other causes of bumps on the tongue include canker sores, bacterial infections, oral herpes, allergies, immune system disorders and oral cancer. A bump can also develop on the side of the tongue in the space created by a missing tooth. Although most cases of bumps on the tongue are harmless, unexplained white or red areas, sores or hard lumps on the tongue should be examined by a medical professional as soon as possible.”

Ulcers on the tongue also can be caused by Crohn’s disease. In addition to stomach problems, Crohn’s disease can lead to redness, swelling, or sores anywhere in your digestive system, including your mouth. Moreover, many with Crohn’s disease find it challenging to consume an appropriate amount of food to receive full nutrition. Nutrient deficiency or insufficient caloric intake can lead to an increased susceptibility to infections, including in your gums and on your tongue.

The Take-Home Message

Although it’s easy to take your tongue for granted, it provides important information about your health. Taking a close look at it during your regular oral hygiene routine will help you monitor for changes in its appearance, texture and color, as well as any abnormalities. You can then take proactive steps to maintain good oral health and address any potential issues before they become more serious.

At NK Family Dental, it is our mission to provide the highest quality and most compassionate oral care to our Chicago patients, including both dental and periodontal services. Our practice is trusted for advanced oral surgery procedures and comfortable root canal treatment.

Our team of experienced, dedicated dental professionals will help address your oral health concerns, and determine the best solution for you based on your individual situation. We strive to identify treatment options that fit your needs.

Our dental specialists include our general dentist, Dr. Nilofer Khan, our endodontist, Dr. Sabek, and our periodontist, Dr. Amir Danesh. Dr. Danesh is a board-certified periodontist and Diplomat of the American Board of Periodontology. He has contributed to the publication of two books, as well as published over 20 papers in prestigious dental research journals.

We serve the neighborhoods of Logan Square, Bucktown, Humboldt Park, and Wicker Park with the dedication that’s earned us the reputation as the Best Dentist in Chicago!

We understand that the main concern you may have is cost, which is why we accept all major PPO plans for dental insurance and also offer our in-house dental plan. Please see our financing page for more information.

Schedule your visit through ZocDoc, or contact us directly. We look forward to treating you soon!


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