Next time someone sticks their tongue out at you, grab it and take a good long look. Not only will this scare the heck out of them, you’ll be getting an up-close and personal transcript of their health records. A growing body of evidence suggests that not only are our tongues good for tasting, moving bits of food around our mouths and projecting our disdain or defiance to the world, they’re also an efficient way to get a heads-up on what’s ailing you.
But far from being just an inconsequential curiosity, variations in the color and texture of your tongue can actually provide an important glimpse into the state of your health. When you know what to look for, these variations can provide a clue as to whether you’re healthy or suffering from a serious condition which needs to be addressed. Such conditions can include diabetes, vitamin deficiencies, tooth or gum decay, or yeast infections. We’ve put together the seven most important signs to look out for on your tongue, and what they mean in tongue-talk.
1. Lumpy white tongue
If it looks like your tongue has a cottage cheese-like coating, you could have a yeast infection. This could mean anything from thrush to an oral yeast infection to a Candida albicans overgrowth in your gut.
Yeast infections or overgrowths are often linked to things like antibiotics, chronic stress, too much sugar and contraceptives. Antibiotics are particularly troublesome, with repeated use killing off not only the bad bacteria in your body, but the beneficial bacteria as well. With your beneficial bacteria populations wiped out in your gut and mouth, harmful bacteria can move in and take up residence.
Candida is perhaps the most famous opportunist following a bout of antibiotics, too much stress, an overload of sugar or continued contraceptive use. Candida is a naturally occurring yeast in your gut, and under normal conditions actually provides important functioning to your body like nutrient absorption and immune support. Antibiotics kill off bacteria but are often unable to affect candida, meaning it now has an expansive estate at its disposal to grow and put down roots throughout your gut. This results in autoimmune issues, constant sugar cravings, weight gain, hormonal imbalance and often a “cottage cheese tongue.”
2. Small white tongue patchesWhile we’re on the topic of weird white patterns on your tongue, keep your eye out for this one. Small white patches on the top or underside of your tongue could mean that something is directly irritating the inside of your mouth. These patches (provided they are painless) are caused by an excess growth of cells on your tongue and are often associated with smokers. If you find yourself within this group, look out! Those patches have a strong chance of developing into cancer. The solution? Stop smoking!
If you’re not a smoker, small white patches on your tongue could simply be due to your teeth rubbing against the surface of your tongue, or perhaps eating too much abrasive food like chips.
3. Bright red tongueThis one has probably got you worried, considering it looks like you’ve eaten a whole punnet of strawberries or perhaps five beets in a row. A glossy, bright red tongue often signifies a vitamin deficiency, in particular iron or vitamin B12. These two vitamins are not only essential for a range of healthy functions in your body, they’re also required for the maturation of papillae on your tongue. If you’re lacking in iron or B12, the loss of those papillae means your tongue takes on a smooth, almost glossy texture.
While you shouldn’t experience any pain or discomfort, severe iron or B12 deficiency and the resulting smoothness of the tongue can make eating hot or spicy foods miserable. Basically, if you’ve got a notably red, smooth tongue, consult your doctor or get a comprehensive blood test to see whether you’re vitamin deficient. Vegetarians are particularly at risk, as a lot of our vitamin B12 and iron intake comes from red meat.
4. Tongue cracksIf you’ve noticed an increasing amount of “wrinkles” or deep grooves on your tongue, don’t fret. These tongue wrinkles, which remind me a little of glacial crevasses, are usually just a manifestation of age. Like your skin, your tongue degrades with time, and this is simply it’s own way of showing that wear and tear.
That being said, things can get a little dicey is you don’t keep things clean inside your mouth. Those same benign fissures can easily develop a fungal infection if you don’t make oral hygiene a priority, which can then lead to bad breath, pain, and possibly a burning sensation. All the more reason to brush your teeth, floss and clean your tongue on a regular basis.
5. Tongue ulcersWe’ve all had them and everyone seems to have a different theory as to why they appear. Even the experts don’t know for sure what they are and what specifically causes canker sores. They suspect, however, that these little devils are viral in nature and have ties to elevated stress levels. I’ve also long held the opinion that they spring up on the tongue and cheeks after eating too much sour fruit, particularly citrus.
There are a few things you can do to treat tongue canker sores, like rubbing baking soda on the affected area or rinsing your mouth with salty water. Otherwise, they should be gone within two weeks — any longer and you may have a bigger problem.
6. Permanent tongue lesionsWhile we’re on the subject of weird bumps on your tongue, if you see one of these guys, take a quick trip down to the doctor. Different from canker-sores or ulcers in that they don’t go away after two weeks, they should be checked immediately. Even if you’re unsure of whether it’s a canker sore or a potentially carcinogenic lesion, it’s always best to err on the side of caution and get an expert opinion.
7. Black tongue fuzz
It sounds a trifle disgusting, and it’s significance is a little gross as well: a tongue with visible black or brown hairs (or “fuzz”) means your oral hygiene leaves a lot to be desired. While it suggests that you should ramp up your tooth brushing and mouth washing routine a bit, experts state that it isn’t a cause for concern in and of itself.
Other things which can cause a black and hairy tongue include smoking and drinking a lot of coffee or dark teas. These can cause the papillae on your tongue to grow bacteria, which create that discolored look and lead to bad breath or weird tastes. Ditch the smoking or excessive hot drinks and work on your oral hygiene routine and it should go away.
— Liivi Hess