Is your tongue causing you discomfort? Believe it or not, your tongue can reveal all sorts of surprising things about your health, from stress and vitamin deficiencies to your risk of oral cancer. Find out what your tongue pain could mean with our handy guide to tongue health. This guide covers everything from canker sores to thrush.
1. Canker sores on tongue
What it could mean: you’re stressed.
Canker sores on tongues are punched-out, painful areas that occur on the tongue or cheeks. They’re most uncomfortable for the first four to five days. They then subside and eventually disappear within two weeks.
Canker sores on tongues are thought to be caused by a virus and typically occur when people are run down or stressed. But other causes can include excessive consumption of acidic or spicy foods, vitamin deficiencies, hormones, stress or autoimmune disorders.
How to treat it: Visit a doctor if you experience these sores accompanied by a fever; if you experience difficulty swallowing; or if the sores last for more than three weeks. Do this pronto – better safe than sorry.
2. White lumps on tongue
What it could mean: you have thrush.
Oral thrush is a yeast infection caused by an overproduction of candida which manifest as white lumps on tongues. The condition is often linked to antibiotics as these can kill off good bacteria and allow yeast to take over. So if you’ve recently finished a course of antibiotics, this is common.
Thrush can be painful and can also cause food to taste a bit strange. It typically occurs in young children but can also affect people with autoimmune diseases, diabetes that isn’t well controlled, chemotherapy patients and the elderly.
How to treat it: You should see your doctor if you suspect you have thrush. You can also ingest probiotic-laden foods like yoghurt, kimchi, sourdough bread, and drinks like kefir and kombucha. Probiotics are an easier, cost-effective way to handle any form of yeast infection. Just make sure to see a doctor if symptoms persist despite your best (probiotic) efforts.
ALSO SEE: Natural Ways To Keep Your Teeth Healthy
3. A fissured (or cracked, painful) tongue
What it could mean: you need to improve your brushing.
Worry not – a fissured or ‘cracked’ tongue is rarely a cause for concern and is considered very normal. The condition is thought to be genetic and just as wrinkles deepen with age, so can the cracks on the tongue.
Problems only tend to arise with a fissured tongue if poor dental hygiene causes debris to collect in the cracks, which can lead to infection. Symptoms can include a sensitive, sore or burning tongue.
How to treat it: It’s a good idea to get your fissured tongue checked out by a dentist if you have any concerns. Dentists can clean out the fissures and recommend the best oral hygiene practices.
4. Burning tongue
A burning tongue sensation can be caused by irritation or a vitamin deficiency. Drinking too many irritating fizzy or alcoholic beverages, over-brushing your tongue or overusing your mouthwash can irritate the mouth tissues and cause a burning tongue. If you experience a burning sensation in your mouth, try to drink fewer or less acidic drinks.
Deficiencies in B vitamins and minerals including iron and zinc can also contribute to burning tongue syndrome by affecting the health of your oral tissues. Make sure you are eating a well-balanced diet with fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dairy, nuts, seeds and healthy proteins.
A burning tongue is also one of the lesser known symptoms of menopause too. This affects around four in ten women who are menopausal.
How to treat it: Make sure you’re drinking plenty of water. Also try to cut down on acidic drinks and visit your doctor for a blood test to find out if you should be taking additional vitamin supplements. If you’ve ever experienced tongue pain, you’ll know just how uncomfortable it can be – see a doctor if you are in any form of discomfort.
5. White patches on tongue
What it could mean: you may be at risk of oral cancer.
Small, white patches on tongues can be caused by a condition called Leukoplakia. Leukoplakia is not a form of cancer but it does increase your risk of developing oral cancer.
Smoking is the most common cause of Leukoplakia. But other irritants can trigger it too, such as: rough, uneven teeth; injury to the side of the cheek from biting; chewing tobacco; and inflammatory conditions of the body.
Leukoplakia often goes away on its own, but in some cases it can develop into oral cancer. So it’s always best to get it checked out by your dentist or doctor if you have concerns.
How to treat it: Small white patches on tongues can be removed by your doctor or dentist using a scalpel or laser. Larger leukoplakia patches may require oral surgery.
6. Red patches on tongue
What it could mean: nothing at all – you’ve simply inherited it from your family. Relief!
This is sometimes referred to as “geographic tongue”. It is an inflammatory disorder that usually affects the top and sides of the tongue. Typically, affected tongues have bald, red patches in varying sizes that are surrounded, in part, by an irregular white border. This doesn’t typically cause excessive tongue pain, only mild discomfort.
How to treat it: There is usually no need for treatment of this condition. Geographic tongue may occasionally cause a burning or smarting sensation. In this case, topical anaesthetics can be used for surface numbing. Anti-inflammatory drugs (cortisone-like drugs) can also be prescribed to help control discomfort.
ALSO SEE: How To Care For Your Teeth At Every Age
7. Red tongue
What it could mean: you have a vitamin B12 deficiency.
A glossy, bright red tongue may be a sign your body is lacking iron or vitamin B12. Both of these nutrients are needed to mature papillae on the tongue. So if your body is deficient in them, you can lose the papillae (little bumps), which can make your tongue appear very smooth.
This ‘balding’ red tongue can cause pain when eating hot liquids or spicy foods in severe cases. Vegetarians are especially prone to low levels of B12, which is found in certain meats.
How to treat it: If your tongue is a strawberry red colour, ask your doctor for advice on supplements.
ALSO SEE: What Vitamins Should I Take?
8. Tongue ulcers that cause tongue pain
What it could mean: nothing at all, really. Most mouth ulcers are caused by things you can avoid doing, like biting your tongue.
Mouth ulcers are very common and rarely a sign of anything serious, though they can cause tongue pain.
If you have several mouth ulcers at once this can be a symptom of hand-foot-and-mouth disease (which also causes a rash on hands and feet). Alternatively, you could have oral lichen planus, a rash that effects inside your mouth (as well as other parts of your body).
How to treat it: In most cases, there is no need for treatment of this condition unless the ulcers last longer than three weeks and keep coming back – in which case see your doctor. If you suspect you may have oral lichen planus or hand-foot-and-mouth disease, be sure to see your doctor.
Tongue cancer: how to tell if your symptoms may mean something serious
Sometimes it’s hard not to wonder if your symptoms can be symptomatic of something much worse, in this cause tongue cancer or oral cancer. Here are some of the symptoms you should look out for:
- a red or white patch on the tongue that won’t go away and isn’t geographic tongue
- a sore throat that doesn’t go away
- a sore spot (ulcer) or lump on the tongue that doesn’t go away
- pain when swallowing
- numbness in the mouth that won’t go away
- unexplained bleeding from the tongue (that’s not caused by biting your tongue or other injury)
- pain in the ear (this is a very rare symptom)
These symptoms can be signs of other conditions and might be due to something less serious. But if you have any concerns then check with your GP to make sure.