If you’ve wondered why your doctor or dentist regularly asks to look at your tongue during routine checkups, here’s a quick answer: Your tongue reflects your overall health in ways that you might not realize.
Yes, your tongue actually has a bigger purpose than merely facilitating taste and allowing you to lick frosting off baked goods.
It serves as a window to any deficiencies you might have, and it may physically manifest symptoms of various major underlying diseases.
After the gums, the tongue is the most common disease-harboring site in the mouth.
However, it remains one of the most neglected organs of our bodies. Even routinely cleaning it is a task many disregard.
While the tongue is technically an internal organ, we do have the option of sticking it out from time to time and observing it in the mirror as we do the rest of our external body.
You will be surprised at the number of things your tongue might suddenly reveal, once you know what to look for.
Identifying a symptom is the first step toward dealing with countless diseases and maintaining optimal health.
Here are 10 symptoms present on the tongue that may indicate various health issues.
1. Bright Redness
A healthy person’s tongue is usually pink in color. When the tongue takes on a brighter red color, it can be a sign of various conditions, such as anemia, Kawasaki disease and scarlet fever.
A bright red tongue could be a symptom of a vitamin B12 deficiency. The body requires vitamin B12 to make red blood cells. A deficiency can cause fatigue and anemia.
A bright red tongue, initially manifesting itself in the form of red spots or patches, was identified as one of the key physical symptoms in a person diagnosed with anemia, according to a 2009 study published in the Journal of the Canadian Dental Association.
Kawasaki disease inflames the blood vessels in children, most commonly in those younger than age 5. A strawberry red tongue is one of the most common symptoms of Kawasaki disease, according to a 2005 study published in The National Medical Journal of India.
A strawberry red tongue is also a common symptom of scarlet fever, a bacterial disease that could affect anyone but is most common among children between the ages of 5 and 12.
Out of 45 patients with scarlet fever, 30 reported a strawberry red tongue as a common symptom, according to a 2007 study published in the Journal of Infection.
2. White, Creamy Layer or Patches
A white, cottage cheese-like coating on the tongue, which usually occurs in patches and may be accompanied by lesions, is one of the most common symptoms of oral candidiasis, a yeast infection of the mouth.
It most commonly occurs in the elderly, infants and those with compromised immunity.
The infection results from an overgrowth of yeast on the tongue, usually caused by certain medications (such as birth control pills and antibiotics), obesity or health conditions like a weak immune system, psoriasis and diabetes.
When properly treated, oral candidiasis does not last long.
However, it can also persist for years. Chronic oral candidiasis can indicate an underlying, serious immune system disease, such as HIV or leukemia.
3. Abnormal Smoothness
A normal tongue has tiny hair-like structures (papillae) on its surface that make it rough. A smooth tongue (completely or in patches) devoid of such roughness is abnormal. This condition is called atrophic glossitis.
The smooth tongue may also be accompanied by pain, tenderness and a burning sensation.
Atrophic glossitis is usually associated with a nutritional deficiency of some kind.
In a 2012 study of 176 atrophic glossitis patients, 38 had a high risk of developing blood vessel diseases, 47 had an iron deficiency, 39 had a hemoglobin deficiency, 13 had a vitamin B12 deficiency and 3 had a folic acid deficiency. The study was published in the Journal of Oral Pathology and Medicine.
4. Thick,Yellow Coating
A think, yellow coating on your tongue could simply be a result of your body overheating or a bacterial overload.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, a yellow coating on a red tongue is indicative of too much body heat.
According to western medicine, a thick, yellow coating on the tongue could indicate excess bacterial activity. Poor oral hygiene, excessive mouth breathing and fever are common causes of a bacterial overload in the papillae.
While a thick, yellow coating on the tongue is usually harmless and can be treated by practicing proper oral hygiene, it could also be a sign of something bigger.
It has been identified as often being predictive of strokes in some heart patients.
Out of 378 stroke patients, a thick and greasy yellow coating was one of the most common symptoms in 214 of them, according to a 2001 study published in the Chinese Journal of Integrated Traditional and Western Medicine.
Clinical tongue assessment can prove to be an effective diagnosis medium in heart patients, the study further notes.
5. Painless Bump(s)
A painless bump that appears on the side of the tongue and goes away in two weeks or less is not cause for alarm. However, if it persists longer than that, it could be an early sign of oral cancer.
This bump is likely to be small and either white or red in color. It might prevent you from using your tongue too much or swallowing with ease.
Erithoplakia (a red patch or a slightly raised bump) is a symptom of mouth cancer that may occur on the surface of the tongue and may or may not be accompanied by a white bump, according to a 2011 study published in the Australian Dental Journal.
If you are a regular smoker, especially a chain smoker, you need to pay attention to this seemingly harmless symptom.
Although red bumps are less likely to occur than white bumps, red ones present a greater threat of turning cancerous, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.
Small, painful tongue or mouth sores, also known as ulcers, usually occur on the inner surface of cheeks but may also appear on the underside of the tongue.
Typically, an ulcer results from consuming something coarse and sharp or from accidentally biting your tongue.
However, ulcers that are not triggered by these events and persist longer than a couple of weeks may signify stress, anxiety or a hormonal imbalance.
Fissures can be described as furrows or cracks that occur on the surface of the tongue. They look more unsettling than they actually are. They are usually painless, although some people may experience a burning sensation.
It is a common condition that mostly strikes at an older age and may intensify with aging.
Oral fissures might be indicative of an underlying disease. Tongue fissures are a common symptom in about 6 to 20 percent of patients with psoriasis, an autoimmune skin disorder.
A fissured tongue was found to be the most significantly common oral symptom in study subjects who had psoriasis, according to a 2009 study published in Oral Medicine and Pathology.
8. Burning Sensation
If you have a perpetual burning sensation in your mouth, especially on your tongue, without actually having burned or scalded it, you are probably suffering from what medical practitioners call the “burning mouth syndrome”.
Other common symptoms include tingling, a dry mouth and an overall altered taste perception. It does not trigger any visible symptoms in your mouth.
A burning mouth is usually a symptom of an underlying condition.
Burning mouth syndrome is one of the most common and distressing oral symptoms of menopause, according to a 2013 study published in the International Journal of Backentive Medicine.
If you have recently undergone menopause, getting a diagnosis from a hormonal imbalance perspective might help your situation.
There could be many other causes.
You may suffer allergies from eating certain foods that are part of your daily diet. You may suffer from a dry mouth or an inflammatory mouth disorder. Often, your brand of toothpaste might just be responsible for this adverse reaction on your sensitive tongue.
9. Black and Hairy
A black and hairy tongue might be alarming, but rest assured it is a harmless condition.
However, it does say a lot about hygiene and lifestyle conditions, as well as your dietary habits.
Excessive smoking and poor oral hygiene can cause this condition.
A black, hairy tongue occurs when the papillae trap and sustain certain color-inducing microorganisms, along with tobacco residue if you smoke, over time.
Another often cited cause of the hairy buildup is a lack of abrasion to the upper surface of the tongue. This usually happens to people who eat many “soft” foods that do not stimulate and scrape the tongue’s surface, inducing a buildup of the protein called keratin. This is the same protein that causes hair growth on your head.
A purple tongue sounds like the kind of thing you get after incessantly sucking on a black currant lollypop for hours. However, there is such a thing as a clinical purple tongue, and it could reveal a lot about your health.
A purple tongue is indicative of poor circulation and hampered blood flow in the tongue.
When the blood flow in some cases of a purple tongue was compared with normal tongue cases, those with purple tongues had poorer and reduced blood circulation, according to a 2004 study published in the Journal of Chinese Integrative Medicine.
This could further indicate overall poor body circulation, weight gain, artery disease, blood clots and diabetes, among other conditions.