What Your Tongue Can Tell You About Your Health

Did you know your tongue offers a wealth of information about your health? If your tongue is pink and covered with papillae (small nodules), there’s no cause for concern. However, any changes in appearance or pain could signal internal problems. So, stick out your tongue and have a look in the mirror. Here’s what your tongue can tell you about your health.

Your taste buds keep you alive

Did you know that similar to a fingerprint, each person’s tongue is unique? Most people take their tongue for granted barely giving it a second thought; however, without this amazing organ, you couldn’t talk, eat, or swallow. The average adult has somewhere between 2,000 to 4,000 taste buds. Most are not visible to the human eye. The white nodules (papillae) that you do see are actually tiny hair-like projections. 

Each papilla has an average of six taste buds buried inside the tissue. These taste buds are designed to keep you alive and well. So, when something is amiss inside your mouth, you need to look closer and take it seriously. Your health might be in jeopardy. Here’s what to look for.

Fat tongue

The human tongue has a high percentage of fat. Research now shows that the fatter your tongue, the higher the chance you might be suffering from obstructive sleep apnea. Sleep apnea affects millions of Americans and is a serious health condition. Marked by loud snoring, sleep apnea causes breathing to stop and start frequently throughout the sleep cycle. As a result, you partially awaken and struggle to breathe.

However, most people are not even aware their sleep is disturbed, suggests the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NIH). Sleep apnea increases your risk of daytime drowsiness, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and depression. Recently, however, a new study led by University of Pennsylvania researchers found that through dieting, you can actually reduce tongue fat. And when tongue fat decreases, you lessen your risk of developing sleep apnea.  

White spots or white coating

A white tongue or white spots on the tongue could be a sign you have oral thrush, according to Daniel Allan, MD, for the Cleveland Clinic. Oral thrush is a yeast infection that occurs inside the mouth and often has the consistency of cottage cheese. It’s most often seen in infants, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems. In addition, oral thrush could be a marker for diabetes or a condition that develops after taking antibiotics.  

Another condition that creates white patches on the tongue is Leukoplakia. This condition causes the cells in the mouth to grow in excess, and can develop due to irritation on the tongue. Unfortunately, it can also be a precursor to cancer. However, it’s not inherently dangerous on its own.

Red tongue

A red tongue could be the cause of something as simple as eating red-colored food to eating something acidic that creates temporary discomfort. On the other hand, a bright red tongue can signify a folic acid or B12 vitamin deficiency, according to Onhealth. A simple blood test can determine if you are deficient. In addition, a red tongue could be symptomatic of more serious conditions like scarlet fever.

Strawberry tongue

Similar to having a red tongue, strawberry tongue is red and bumpy with enlarged taste buds and can be a symptom of Kawasaki disease. Kawasaki disease, most often seen in children, is a serious condition that can affect the heart or coronary arteries, according to the American Heart Association.

Black, hairy tongue

Similar to hair, the papillae on your tongue continue to grow throughout your life. For some, the growth is extremely long, which makes it easier to grow bacteria. As bacteria grow, they look dark and black. Generally, a black hairy tongue is a sign you need to improve your oral hygiene. But it can also be a sign of diabetes or a condition that occurs when taking antibiotics or chemotherapy.

Painful bumps

When papilla grows unusually large, it’s likely due to irritation or inflammation. This condition is called transient lingual papillitis, according to research published in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Dentistry. The enlarged bumps may appear to be red, white, or yellow and may cause acute pain, burning, itching, or tingling. Usually, they are transient in nature and go away within days to a few weeks.

Painful bumps can be as simple as an accidental bite or canker sore and usually heal fairly quickly without any treatment. The worst-case scenario could mean it’s a sign of oral cancer. Since early signs of oral cancer have no pain, it’s essential to have any bumps on the tongue checked by a physician if they do not disappear after two weeks.  

Check your tongue each time you brush your teeth and tongue. If you notice any changes such as lumps, discoloration, or painful sores, monitor it daily. If the condition does not go away within two weeks, talk to your health care practitioner.

-Katherine Marko

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