Stick out your tongue and look in the mirror. A healthy tongue looks pink and is covered with small nodules (papillae). If there are any changes in your tongue’s normal appearance, or any pain, it might need to be examined by a doctor or dentist. It could be a sign of a serious problem.
Here are some of symptoms to look for and what they can mean.
If it has a white coating or white spots:
- Oral thrush is a yeast infection that develops inside the mouth. It appears as lumpy white patches that are often the consistency of cottage cheese. It is often linked to antibiotics. Thrush needs to be treated by a doctor.
- Leukoplakia is caused by an excess growth of cells. It is often associated with smokers and can be a precursor to cancer. If you stop smoking, it can sometimes be reversed. See a dentist if it doesn’t go away in a week or two.
- Oral lichen planus is a network of raised white lines that look like lace. The cause is unknown, but it usually clears up on its own.
If it is red:
- Iron and vitamin B-12 deficiencies may cause it to take on a glossy, bright red appearance.
- A map-like pattern of reddish spots on the surface is called a geographic tongue. They can have a white border around them and their location may shift around. It is usually harmless.
- Scarlet fever is an infection that causes the tongue to have a strawberry-like (red and bumpy) appearance. See your doctor for treatment.
- Kawasaki disease is a condition that can also cause a strawberry-like appearance. It is seen in children under the age of 5 and is accompanied by a high fever. It requires medical attention.
If it is black and hairy:
- The papillae on your tongue grow throughout our lifetime. In some people, they become excessively long, which makes them more likely to harbor bacteria. It is usually caused by poor dental hygiene.
- Some foods can discolor the tongue, especially if the papillae are long. Use a tongue scraper to remove the color.
- People with diabetes, taking antibiotics or receiving chemotherapy may cause it to look black and hairy.
If it is sore or bumpy:
- Smoking irritates your tongue, which can cause soreness.
- Canker sores (mouth ulcers) normally heal without treatment within a week or two. Stress is believed to be a factor in causing them, but the cause is not known for sure.
- Trauma from accidentally biting your tongue or scalding it on hot food can cause soreness until the damage heals. Grinding or clenching your teeth can irritate the sides of your tongue making it painful.
- Red lesions or lumps that don’t go away within two weeks could be signs of tongue cancer. Get it checked immediately, even if there isn’t any pain. It can happen at any age and be caused from tobacco use or the HPV virus.
Everyone should check their tongue when they brush their teeth and tongue. If any problems don’t go away within two weeks schedule an appointment with a medical professional.