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The human tongue is often referred to as the most powerful muscle in the body. But your tongue is actually comprised of eight muscles working together as a multi-use tool. Washington Irving once said, “The tongue is the only instrument that gets sharper with use.” Both wars and romances have begun with words rolling off the tongue, and a healthy one helps us taste food, swallow, and talk.

Changes sometimes occur on the surface of the tongue that may leave you wondering what’s going on. While discomfort characterizes some tongue conditions, many changes could go unnoticed without a quick inspection. When you visit Lifetime Smiles for care, we monitor the surfaces of your mouth for any alterations, including on and around your tongue. We can help you determine which ones reflect concerns requiring further evaluation or monitoring.

A healthy tongue is pink and covered with papillae: small nodules with taste buds on top. The average person has about 10,000 of these projections, and they’re replaced every two weeks. Many changes alter the papillae, although few are serious. Let’s explore a few color shifts that you might notice on your tongue:

White Tongue

  • Leukoplakia: Cells of the tongue sometimes overgrow and produce a white film or patch, especially in areas of irritation. Tobacco is a well-known irritant along with ill-fitting dentures. Leukoplakia isn’t dangerous, but it can lead to cancer in some cases. This should be evaluated.
  • Thrush: Oral thrush, or candidiasis, is a yeast infection that can lead to excessive, thick white patches. Babies and elderly patients sometimes get thrush, a condition that may thrive under dentures also. Diabetics, immune-compromised patients, or people using antibiotics may develop candidiasis. We can help if you’re dealing with thrush.
  • Lichen Planus: This condition has an unclear cause, but it’s marked by raised white lines interlaced on your tongue. Sometimes eliminating certain foods or improving your oral home care will bring things back to normal.

Red Tongue

  • Vitamin Deficiencies: The tongue may take on a generalized reddish appearance if you lack B-12 or folic acid.
  • Scarlet Fever: If you come down with a high fever and a red tongue, you need to see your doctor right away. If you have Scarlet Fever, antibiotics are required.
  • Geographic Tongue: If you notice red dots with meandering borders resembling a map, you may have this condition. While it’s benign, certain ointments can be prescribed if it results in any discomfort.

Black Tongue

  • Remember the papillae mentioned earlier? Sometimes they overgrow and become a haven for bacteria and stain. Chemotherapy, diabetic, or antibiotic patients may also deal with black hairy tongue. While it doesn’t look pleasant and can contribute to bad breath, it rarely indicates a serious problem. Usually better oral hygiene and tongue cleaning will take care of it, and our team can help you find a personalized strategy to deal with it.

Your tongue often reflects messages about your general health and deserves a regular inspection.  While cancerous changes are rare, it’s important that discolored or irregular areas are checked.  If you notice any of these changes, be sure to schedule an exam with us. By seeing us for your regular preventive visits, we’ll help monitor your teeth, gums, tongue, and mouth lining for optimal health!

father and son sticking out their tongues

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