Your tongue can show you an awful lot about your health, for example how your lifestyle, diet and environment are affecting you. It can also indicate if there is an underlying condition that you may be unaware of.
Firstly, a little about the anatomy of the tongue. It is comprised of pink tissue known as mucosa on which there are tiny bumps known as papillae. The papillae have thousands of taste buds embedded in them. A healthy tongue is pink with a thin white film on it.
Should your tongue appear white coated it is probably due to dead cells from bacteria or fungi getting trapped in the tongue’s nodules. It can be a sign of dehydration so drinking plenty of water and brushing the tongue gently can help resolve the problem within a couple of weeks.
Some medications can cause the mouth to become dry (Xerostomia) consequently there is not enough saliva produced to breakdown and wash the dead cells away on the tongue. Dry mouths can also be caused by chemotherapy treatments, sleeping with the mouth open, smoking and problems with the salivary glands. There are aids on the market to help dry mouths which your dentist or hygienist will recommend.
If the white coating on the tongue is patchy and ‘cottage cheese’ like in appearance it is an indication of oral thrush (Candida). Sometimes the tongue feels as though it is burning and the white patches can be scraped off. This condition can be a sign of iron or B vitamin deficiency. It is common in diabetics, people with weakened immune systems, those that take antibiotics on a regular basis and denture wearers. It can also be found quite commonly in infants and the elderly.
When the tongue appears to have a white patch that cannot be removed by brushing and is painless it should be investigated by your dentist. It can be caused by the tongue being irritated from tobacco products or drinking too much alcohol and frequent bouts of thrush. This condition is known as Leucoplakia and it is important that it is monitored on a regular basis for it can be a precursor to cancer.
Raised white lacy patches on the tongue are often the indication of a long-term disorder of the immune system. It is usually a painless condition but in some people, it can be sore and burn. In these cases, antiseptic mouth rinses and steroid sprays can help alleviate the discomfort. The cause seems to be unknown and it is not a hereditary condition nor is it contagious. This condition is known as Oral Lichen Planus.
A tongue that is red in appearance can indicate a vitamin deficiency such as folic acid or B12. Your dentist would probably suggest a visit to the GP for a blood test.
Should your tongue have a map like pattern of red spots with a white border around them there is no need to worry. It can appear on the underside of the tongue as well. The skin of the tongue replaces itself and in this case as the skin comes away it leaves a red area which can be sore. The white border is the old skin that has not yet come away. The areas move over time and there is a chance of contracting oral thrush.
If the tongue appears black and hairy it is because the papillae of the tongue have grown long and appear hair-like. This makes them more likely to harbour bacteria hence the black appearance. This isn’t a common condition but can be caused by chemotherapy, diabetes, antibiotics, and poor oral hygiene.
Sore tongues can be caused by grinding or clenching your teeth along with smoking. Ulcers on the tongue may develop due to stress but other causes are unknown. Should any of these last longer than 2 weeks than they should be looked at by your dentist.
At the Black Swan Dental Spa every patient is examined for oral cancer at their six-monthly examination. If you are concerned about a sore or ulcer on the tongue in between your check-up, please visit your dentist. A photo will be taken to monitor the area and you will be invited to return in 2 weeks.
Should anything be of concern your dentist will send your photo to a specialist clinic that will review it and advise if further treatment is necessary.