The tongue is one of the most important muscles in the body. (That’s right – it is a muscular organ!) Well supplied with blood and boasting a plethora of nerves, the tongue is covered with a layer of dense connective tissue. Tiny bumps called papillae give the tongue its rough texture. And thousands of taste buds cover the surface of the papillae.
What the Tongue Does
The tongue’s main job relates to eating. It enables a person to suck, turn solid food into a mash, and begins the process of swallowing. The tongue also differentiates many tastes and flavors, informing the body about the suitability of various foods and drinks. The tongue is also critical for speaking. What’s more, the tip of the tongue is extremely sensitive to touch. In fact, the tongue amplifies the effect of potential risks such as small stones, fish bones, and splinters to prevent them from being swallowed and causing damage to the esophagus and stomach.
Diseases of the Tongue
If you notice signs of distress on your tongue, don’t ignore them. See your medical or dental professional as soon as possible. These signs could reveal a serious problem.
- Black Tongue
A hairy tongue can appear black in color. However, they tongue can also turn black after taking an antacid that contains an ingredient called bismuth. For some people, the ingredient mixes with saliva and stains the tongue black. Thankfully, the effect is harmless and will resolve itself as soon as you discontinue the medicine.
- Bright Red Tongue
A strawberry-red tongue could signal Kawasaki disease. This is a rare, serious illness that inflames blood vessels throughout the body, most often in children. Red tongue is also a symptom of scarlet fever. However, if your red tongue is smooth and accompanied by mouth pain, it might be a sign that your body needs more vitamin B3.
People often feel canker sores under the tongue. They manifest as small, painful, reddish bumps that come and go at will. A single, painful bump at the tip could be transient lingual papillitis. Also known as “lie bumps,” these can appear if the tongue is irritated. Viruses can also lead to little bumps on the tips and sides. If you notice a lump on or under your tongue which hurts and doesn’t go away, tell your doctor or dentist so they can screen for oral cancer.
- Burning Tongue
If your tongue feels like it has been scalded with hot coffee and tastes metallic or bitter, you may have Burning Mouth Syndrome (Not at all related to Burning Man). This might signify a problem with the nerves in your tongue. Other health problems, such as dry mouth, infections, acid reflux, and diabetes may cause it, too. For some people, acidic foods like pineapple and toothpaste, mouthwash, candy, or gum also make their mouth burn.
- Fissured Tongue
Deep grooves sometimes form on the tongue with age. They also are linked to Down syndrome, psoriasis, and Sjogren’s syndrome. As disturbing as they appear, they are harmless. However, gently brush your tongue to clear food and bacteria. The grooves may improve once your doctor treats the underlying condition.
- Hairy Tongue (Yes, that’s a thing!)
A tongue with a black, brown, or white fur-looking coating means you might have a hairy tongue. These “hairs” turn normal, small bumps into longer strands, where food and bacteria get caught. You should be able to eliminate the hair by brushing or scraping the tongue. If you see hairy, white patches that you are unable to scrape off, this might signal oral hairy leukoplakia. This happens to people who are infected with viruses like Epstein-Barr or HIV.
- Smooth Tongue
An unusually smooth tongue (without small bumps on the top) may appear glossy red. This can occur if you lack nutrients such as iron, folic acid, or B vitamins. Infections, celiac disease, and some types of medications can also cause it. If you notice patches of smooth areas next to bumpy ones, this could be diagnosed as geographic tongue. The spots can come and go. And sometimes, they can hurt or burn. The condition is harmless. But it could be linked to psoriasis or lichen planus.
The tongue has lots of nerve endings. Thus, it can hurt when you bite or injure it. Canker sores, lichen planus, thrush, and geographic tongue can cause pain. Some medications and infections also hurt the tongue. Sometimes pain in the tongue can signal cancer, especially if it is accompanied by a lump or red or white patches. Discuss those problems with your doctor or dentist.
- White Patches
Creamy white spots could signal thrush, which is a fungal infection. Thrush occurs after an illness or medications throw off the delicate balance of bacteria in the mouth. White lacey-looking patches could be lichen planus. The presence of this means the immune system is attacking tissues in the mouth. Also, if you see hard, flat, white areas that you can’t scrape away, they could be leukoplakia, which is linked to cancer.
If you notice anything unusual about your tongue, mention it to your healthcare professional. We will be happy to diagnose the issue and come up with a treatment plan.
About Dr. Fred Wong of Blue Ocean Dentistry in Glendora, California
Dr. Fred Wong and the staff at Blue Ocean Dentistry use the latest available dental treatments, equipment, and materials – all of which make a marked difference in our patients’ experiences. We are committed to helping our patients achieve optimal dental health. We creatively combine dental science and artistry — which can literally redesign your smile. Since even a subtle change in your smile will help you to project self-confidence and high self-esteem, we love helping you feel good about yourself. We deliver the finest dental care at the most reasonable cost and accept most dental insurance plans as well as CareCredit. For more about the dental treatment plans we offer or to schedule an appointment, call today (626) 852-6999.