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What Your Tongue Says About Your Health

Sticking out your tongue at someone can have many meanings, from being silly to a sign of disgust. But sticking out your tongue can also give you important clues about your health.

“The tongue and oral cavity are important in numerous day-to-day functions, such as eating, speaking, chewing, swallowing, breathing and even the health of your teeth,” said Audrey Baker, MD, an ear, nose and throat specialist with Banner – University Medical Center Tucson. “It can also provide important information about every system in our body.”

Sure, you may notice changes to your teeth and face, but inspecting your tongue’s color and shape is important too. So, go ahead, stick it out and take a peek in the mirror.

If you’re wondering whether your tongue is considered “healthy” or not, keep reading to learn what changes you should look out for and when you should see your health care provider.

The color of your tongue

While your tongue may not look exactly like anyone else’s in your family, a healthy tongue will share similarities when it comes to color.

“The overall color of the tongue should range from red to pale pink,” Dr. Baker said. “It can have many shades, and all are normal.”

When your tongue isn’t its normal reddish to pinkish color, you could have an underlying health issue. Below are some colors your tongue may be and what they could mean.

  • Dark red to purple: A dark red to purplish tongue could indicate something as simple as a vitamin deficiency, but it could also indicate a fever or an infection, such as Scarlet fever or Kawasaki disease.
  • Blue: A blue tongue could indicate poor oxygen circulation that may be due to lung problems.
  • Yellow: A tongue with a yellow appearance can develop due to a buildup of bacteria from things like poor oral hygiene, tobacco, alcohol or coffee use or dry mouth.
  • Black: A tongue that appears black (and even hairy looking!) can be due to certain antibiotics, diabetes, poor oral hygiene and smoking. Additionally, Pepto-Bismol has been shown to temporarily darken the appearance of your tongue. “Thankfully this isn’t common and can typically resolve with good dental hygiene,” Dr. Baker said.
  • White: A white tongue could indicate you have oral thrush, a fungal infection of your mouth’s mucous membranes. It could also indicate dehydration or be caused by benign conditions such as leukoplakia, which sometimes can become cancerous.

The texture and shape of your tongue

Just as your tongue can vary normally in color, it can also vary in its look and shape. The surface of the tongue can also appear bumpier than others, but this doesn’t necessarily mean you need to call your health care provider.

However, here are some that are worth noting when evaluating your tongue’s shape and texture.

  • Scalloped edges or indented teeth marks: Typically, this is normal and has to do with how the tongue sits against the teeth, but it can also occur as a result of TMJ and grinding your teeth at night.
  • Painful bumps or ulcers: Painful bumps on your tongue can be due to biting, smoking, canker sores or oral cancer.
  • Red or white bumps: If there is a white or red lesion that develops on your tongue, it may represent an early or advanced tongue cancer and should be seen by your health care provider right away. “Many lesions on the tongue can also be benign and resolve on their own,” Dr. Baker noted. “It’s best to have your tongue looked at if it doesn’t go away within a couple of weeks.”
  • Thin tongue: If you develop a very thin tongue, it could indicate dehydration.

What is your tongue telling you about your health?

Make regular tongue checks a part of your daily brushing routine. If you notice any changes that don’t go away within a couple weeks, schedule an appointment with your health care provider or dental provider.

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Ear, Nose and Throat