What does your tongue say about your health?

Dental exam of a patient's tongue

We check our hair in the mirror, sometimes our teeth too, but how frequently do we check our tongue?

It’s a good idea. Your tongue can offer hints about the health of your mouth as well as your overall body.

Changes in color, sores or bumps — if they don’t resolve in a couple of weeks — could be indicators of an illness or disease, possibly even serious issues such as cancer.

Some people who had COVID-19 found that it temporarily changed their tongue and sense of taste. Although their tongue may have developed bumps, swelled, turned red or white and patchy, it’s unclear how often these symptoms occurred.

A healthy tongue is pink throughout and covered with tiny pink bumps. Here are some signs your tongue might be unhealthy:

Look for changes in color

Deep red

If your tongue is red, you may be deficient in folic acid or Vitamin B-12 or you may have an infection such as strep throat.

White

Oral thrush is a yeast infection that can lead to white spots on your tongue or cheeks. Since it’s usually not painful, most people don’t know when they have it. The spots can be brushed off with a toothbrush, but they often return.

White patches on your tongue that won’t go away by brushing your tongue, can be categorized as a condition called leukoplakia. If you chronically bite your tongue, use tobacco, abuse alcohol or have an ill-fitting denture, you can develop leukoplakia. It can also be a symptom of an underlying cancer.

Oral lichen planus can appear as a network of white raised lines on your tongue and cheeks. The chronic disorder causes your immune system to attack cells in your mouth and can be painful.

Black

Though you might be alarmed to see black on your tongue, typically the condition is not serious. Your tongue can turn black when the tiny pink bumps on your tongue grow too long and trap bacteria that appear black, a condition called black hairy tongue. Most often, it indicates someone needs to brush their teeth and tongue on a more regular basis. If you have diabetes or take certain antibiotics, you could be at greater risk of getting black hairy tongue.

Watch for lumps, bumps or sores

Bite your tongue or burn it on hot pizza and that might cause a sore on your tongue. At night, if you grind or clench your teeth, that too can irritate the tongue, typically the sides of the tongue. But a sore or lump could also be a sign of something far more serious, including oral cancer. In the early stages, oral cancers do not hurt, so people can overlook them. Oral cancers are highly preventable if you don’t ignore them. At the same time, a sore or discoloration that doesn’t go away within about two weeks doesn’t necessarily mean cancer. However, it should make you suspicious that something is going on.

When in doubt, reach out

If a lump, bump or sore on your tongue doesn’t go away within two weeks, or your discolored tongue doesn’t return to pink, visit a dentist who can identify whether these changes signify a serious problem.

Get in the habit: brush your tongue daily

Tongues hold a whole lot of bacteria, and some of that bacteria can put you at risk of bad breath or cavities. So along with brushing your teeth for two minutes at least twice a day and removing plaque between teeth by flossing or using an interdental brush, it’s wise to brush your tongue every day.

And the next time you look in the mirror, check out your tongue.

Healthy teeth start here

Ohio State offers complete general and specialty dental care, including emergency care for patients of all ages.

Schedule an appointment

Topics

Related websites

Share this Story

Subscribe. The latest from Ohio State Health & Discovery delivered right to your inbox.

Subscribe

Get articles and stories about health, wellness, medicine, science and education delivered right to your inbox from the experts at Ohio State.

Required fields

Tell us more about yourself

By clicking "Subscribe" you agree to our Terms of Use.
Learn more about how we use your information by reading our Privacy Policy.