What Your Tongue Is Telling You About Your Oral Health

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There was a time when sticking out your tongue was considered the worst of behaviours.

Depending on who you stuck it out at, it was considered crude, impolite or just plain rude. But when it comes to sticking it out at yourself in the mirror, dentists are increasingly saying it’s important you do it regularly to let it tell you about your oral and general health.

The tongue is now known to be not only an integral part of our ordinary vocal communication, but a messenger which alerts you  when your health is under pressure because of stress, infections, medications or diseases. And it delivers these warnings without uttering a word. Instead it uses color codes and other indicators like pain, discomfort, patches, spots or bumps.

How to Read Your Tongue’s Color Codes

If all is well, your tongue should be a normal shade of pink with an array of small nodule-like papillae covering the surface.  It’s when the colour changes, there’s pain or discomfort or the problem doesn’t resolve itself quickly, that there might be cause for concern, and a dental check-up is recommended.

White isn’t Right

If your tongue has a creamy or cheesy covering made up of off-white spots, it could be oral thrush, a fungal infection which develops after illness, or the use of certain medications like antibiotics or inhaled steroids. It’s most common in the very young, but also in the elderly, especially if they have dentures, are diabetic, suffer from lung disease or asthma, or have a compromised immune system.

If the white film has a lacy appearance, it may be oral lichen planus, which seems to disappear of its own accord after a while. Then there is leukoplakia. This gives rise to hard white patches on the tongue and inside the cheeks and you can’t remove it by brushing or scraping.  These overgrown cells are brought about by irritants such as smoking, and have occasionally been linked to cancer. If it persists it would be wise to visit your dentist.

When Red Flags Fly

If your tongue is red, it could be telling you a different story. If it’s also very smooth, and you feel some pain when you eat spicy food, it could be something simple like being short of vitamins like B12, B3, or iron.

Red is also the colour of the usually harmless geographic tongue condition which presents red “continents” as patches sometimes outlined in white to create a “map” on the tongue. It even has the occasional continental drift – with the patches moving around. But red tongues can also speak of diseases like scarlet fever or Kawasaki disease which cause a high fever. These require immediate attention and treatment, as do red lesions which don’t go away within a couple of weeks. These may be the fairly common canker sores which usually disappear in a few days, but may also be early signs of oral cancer if they don’t disappear.

Black, Brown or Hairy

When the papillae on your tongue (which are normally pretty flat) become longer because of age or a poor oral hygiene program, bacteria can get trapped, resulting in an unattractive hairy looking brown or black tongue.

Pain and Discomfort

Sometimes the tongue’s messages are written in discomfort rather than color. If your tongue gets caught between your teeth while you are grinding or clenching them, you can be in for some pain from its edges. And if its nerves play up, or you suffer from infections, diabetes, dry mouth or have to deal with acid reflux, you could end up with a bitter and almost metallic taste in your mouth

So go ahead and stick out your tongue at yourself in the mirror as often as you want to, or at least once a day, so you can look for any messages it is trying to get across. And don’t feel embarrassed when your dentist asks you to say “Ahhh” so it can be closely inspected during your routine dental check-up.

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