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Is Your Tongue Talking to You?

Odd conditions in your mouth could indicate internal health issues

spinner image What is your tounge trying to tell you?
A healthy tongue is typically pink and covered by small nodules.

When doctors stick that annoying tongue depressor in your mouth, it isn't just an unintentional attempt to make you choke. In addition to checking out your throat, they are also taking a look at your tongue, which can tell them a lot about your internal health.

A healthy tongue is typically pink and covered by small nodules, called papillae. However, don't panic at any slight deviation from this description. Many tongue and mouth conditions are harmless, including canker sores, which are believed to be caused by stress and typically go away after two weeks. Geographic tongue, a condition that causes reddish spots that look like a map, is also usually harmless. Other conditions could be more serious and require a trip to the doctor or dentist.

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White coating or white spots on your tongue or mouth

This could be a symptom of oral thrush, a yeast infection that develops inside the mouth, family physician Daniel Allan told the Cleveland Clinic blog Health Essentials. The patches, which may have the consistency of cottage cheese, are more common in the elderly (especially denture wearers) and people with weakened immune systems. People with diabetes and those who take inhaled steroids or antibiotics are also susceptible, Allan said.

White patches could also be a sign of leukoplakia, a condition in which the cells in the mouth grow excessively. The condition, which is common in people who use tobacco, can be a precursor to cancer, reports WebMD.

Bright red tongue

A red tongue could be an indicator for deficiency in folic acid and vitamin B-12. It could also be a sign of scarlet fever, an infection that causes the tongue to have a red and bumpy appearance resembling a strawberry. “If you have a high fever and a red tongue, you need to see your family doctor,” Allan said. “Antibiotics are necessary to treat scarlet fever.”

Black and 'hairy' tongue

Just as hair does on your body, papillae grow on your tongue throughout your lifetime. For some people they become extra long, which makes them more likely to harbor bacteria. 

“Typically [black and hairy tongue] is brought on by smoking, drinking coffee and dark teas, or poor dental hygiene,” Jack Der-Sarkissian, a family physician with Kaiser Permanente in Southern California, told Readers' Digest. While it is important to take care of, you may be able to avoid a visit to the doctor or dentist for this one. “Removing the offending cause, like smoking, and brushing the tongue or using a tongue scraper, may be all you need,” Der-Sarkissian said.

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Sore or bumpy tongue

Traumas such as biting your tongue or scalding it can cause pain in your mouth. But pain can also be an indicator of something more serious, like oral cancer. “A lump or sore on your tongue that doesn’t go away within two weeks could be an indication of oral cancer,” says Allan.

Burning tongue

A burning sensation could mean you have developed an allergy to your toothpaste. The ingredient sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), which makes toothpaste foamy, may cause the stinging. “Someone might be using one toothpaste their entire life, and then suddenly, their mouth starts hurting,” otolaryngologist Dale Amanda Tylor told Readers' Digest. Switching to toothpaste without SLS could help reduce irritation, but for other causes, a doctor may need to prescribe antibiotic rinses or pills, Tylor said. 

Health experts recommend that you check your tongue every day when you brush and consult with a medical professional if you notice conditions that do not go away within two weeks.

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