Your tongue can reveal all sorts of surprising things about your health, from stress and vitamin deficiencies to unchecked diabetes and even oral cancer.
If you are worried that sores, discolouration or changes might be an indication of a more serious problem, here is everything you need to know about the appearance of your tongue, and what it might mean.
1. What does a white, bumpy tongue mean?
If your tongue is looking white – and it’s not just from your toothpaste, then you could be suffering from oral thrush.
Oral thrush is a yeast infection that is caused by an overproduction of candida. The condition is often linked to antibiotics as these can selectively kill off bacteria and allow yeast to take over.
Thrush, which can be painful and cause food to taste a bit strange, 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: If you suspect you might have thrush, see your doctor. Unlike other yeast infections, oral thrush can’t be treated with over-the-counter products.
2. What causes a cracked tongue?
This is sometimes called ‘fissured tongue’ and is perfectly normal, so there’s no need to worry.
The condition is thought to be genetic (over 80% of Down’s Syndrome children have fissured tongues) and fissures can deepen with age, just the way wrinkles do.
Poor dental hygiene, which results in debris gathering in the cracks is the only thing that can lead to possible problems like infection or burning tongue.
How to treat it: If you have any concerns, it’s a good idea to get your tongue checked out by a dentist, who can clean out the fissures and recommend the best oral hygiene practices.
3. What are canker sores?
Canker sores are punched-out, painful areas that occur on the tongue or cheeks. They are most uncomfortable for the first four to five days, then subside and eventually disappear within two weeks.
Canker sores are thought to be caused by a virus and typically occur when people are run down or stressed. Other causes can include excessive consumption of acidic or spicy foods, vitamin deficiencies, hormones, stress or autoimmune disorders.
How to treat it: If you experience canker sores accompanied by a fever, you have difficulty swallowing, or the sores last for more than three weeks, then it’s best to visit a doctor.
4. Why are there white spots on your tongue?
Small, white patches appearing on the tongue can be caused by a condition called Leukoplakia.
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 a small percentage of 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: If removal is needed, small patches can be taken away by your doctor or dentist for biopsy, using a scalpel or through laser therapy. Large leukoplakia patches will require oral surgery.
5. What causes your tongue to burn?
If your tongue often feels like it’s burning, it could be the result of excessive irritation in the mouth or even a vitamin deficiency.
Drinking too many alcoholic beverages, over-brushing your tongue and overusing your mouthwash can all irritate mouth tissue. If you are experiencing a burning sensation in your mouth, try to drink fewer acidic drinks.
Vitamin and mineral deficiencies, 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.
How to treat it: Make sure you’re drinking plenty of water and visit your doctor for a blood test to find out if you should be taking additional vitamin supplements.
6. What causes a red tongue?
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 and if your body is deficient in them, you can lose the papillae, which can make your tongue appear very smooth.
In severe cases, this “balding” can cause pain when eating hot liquids or spicy foods. Vegetarians are especially prone to low levels of B12, which is found in meat, poultry, fish and milk.
How to treat it: If you notice your whole tongue is a strawberry red colour, and you are a vegetarian, ask your doctor about taking supplements.
7. Can a geographic tongue be cured?
A geographic tongue is an inflammatory disorder that usually appears on the top and sides of the tongue. Typically, affected tongues have a bald, red area of varying sizes that is surrounded, at least in part, by an irregular white border.
How to treat it: In most cases, there is no need for treatment of this condition. Occasionally a geographic tongue may cause a burning or smarting sensation on the tongue. In this situation, topical anesthetics can be used for surface numbing.
Anti-inflammatory drugs (cortisone-like drugs) can also be prescribed to help control discomfort.
There are no known cases of a geographic tongue causing cancer, and as a result, biopsies are not necessary.