The tongue is a very important muscle that helps you to chew and swallow food, taste (the average tongue has about 9,000 taste buds) and speak. When it’s healthy, your tongue should be slightly pink in color, moist and fairly smooth. However, if your tongue is dry, coated, discolored or painful, it could indicate a problem.
A change in the appearance or feeling of your tongue could be related to the tongue itself or another problem within your body. Some tongue changes are harmless, but others may indicate health issues.
Take a look at your tongue in front of the mirror. A normal tongue is a healthy coral pink and is sandpaper rough, covered with fissures, grooves and small hairlike projections called papillae.
Here are some signs to look for, along with what they may be telling you:
White Coating on Tongue
If the tongue looks sort of white and pasty it may be signs of some sort of infection, such as a bacterial overgrowth. One possible cause could be thrush which is an overgrowth of candida (also called yeast) bacteria. Once the infection is treated with anti-fungal drugs (either topical or oral) and the infection clears up, the tongue will return to its healthy pink shade.
A healthy tongue should have a warm, pinkish color, so when it looks dark brown or black, you need to wonder why. And chances are, the answer will be in your diet, lifestyle or your medicine cabinet. “The papillae on the top of the tongue can easily take on stains or various colors from the foods, drinks, antibiotics, lozenges, etc. that you consume. And drinking a lot of coffee, smoking or chewing tobacco can stain the tongue a brownish shade. The good news is that in both cases, it’s probably just stained from food or medicine, and simply brushing your tongue a few times should help it fade back to its normal shade.
The top of the tongue is covered with papillae. They are made up of keratin which is the same protein that makes up hair, but they’re not really ‘hair.’ Under normal conditions, you wouldn’t even notice them. But certain conditions can cause them to elongate, giving the tongue a “hairy” appearance. Several factors could be responsible for causing the filiform papillae to grow, including a bacterial infection, taking antibiotics, or having a very dry mouth.
Canker sores on your tongue can be extremely painful. Some people are more prone to getting canker sores than others. Canker sores tend to crop up when other factors fall into place—such as having a cold or fever, eating an excess of citrus fruits, or biting your tongue. A normal canker sore should diminish in a week to 10 days.
Red and Sore
If your pink color changes to bright or dark red, that can be clue to certain nutritional deficiencies—especially a lack of niacin (also called vitamin B3), a condition known as pellagra. Other nutritional issues can also cause this odd coloring. A diet low in folic acid or vitamin B12 may also be to blame. But a temporary redness and pain in the tongue is most likely caused by something you ate or drank. If you suffer from frequent bouts of tongue pain, you might want to try eliminating these foods from your diet to see if the irritation clears up.
A yellowish tint on the tongue is probably a clue that there is some sort of fungal or bacterial infection in the mouth. Another possible cause of tongue yellowing is gastric reflux.
Burning mouth syndrome is a specific condition that goes far beyond simply eating certain foods that cause a temporary stinging sensation. The condition is characterized by pain and burning that can affect just the tongue or the entire mouth; the sensation may be constant or it may come and go throughout the day. Burning mouth syndrome most commonly afflicts post-menopausal women, but researchers don’t know why. Other possible causes include bacterial infections, dry mouth (a side effect from some medications), or nutritional deficiencies. Current treatments for managing burning mouth syndrome include drinking water more frequently and chewing gum (to combat dry mouth). Some doctors may prescribe anti-anxiety drugs.
Pale and Smooth
For those who suffer from iron deficiency anemia, the tongue can take on an abnormally pale, smooth look. When your body is dealing with a lack of iron, your blood doesn’t have the necessary oxygen-carrying capacity to keep the tissues red. Thus, your tongue becomes pale and looks smooth. When the anemia is under control and the blood is once properly oxygenated, the tongue will go back to its healthy pink shade.
To keep your tongue clean and healthy, daily use of a tongue scraper can do the job. Experts recommend using a tongue scraper twice daily for about 10 to 15 seconds during each use. Tongue scrapers are inexpensive and can be found at most drug stores.