This is not tongue in cheek

by Karen Bowen

Why does your doctor ask you to stick out your tongue? Because it offers many clues to your overall health.

Did you know that proportionally, the tongue is your strongest muscle? Your tongue actually looks a lot like your intestines and says a lot about how your body is reacting to the food you are eating. It is essential for chewing, swallowing, and tasting food as well as for speaking.

How should it look? If it’s healthy, it should be slightly pink, moist and smooth. However, you may have a health problem if it is discoloured, dry, cracked, coated or painful.

So, step up to the mirror and stick out your tongue. Be sure to note any recent changes in how your tongue looks or feels. See what your tongue is telling you about your health.

First of all, the top of the tongue easily takes on stains or colours from the foods you eat; so if your tongue has a strange colour, think back to what you’ve recently eaten. For example, coffee, smoking and chewing tobacco can turn your tongue brown. Just a quick brush with a toothbrush a couple of times a day will reverse the discolouration.

However, if your tongue looks hairy or furry, it means that the small bumps (papillae) that cover the surface of your tongue have become enlarged. This is harmless, but can be treated with antibiotics if it bothers you.

If your tongue has bright red patches on top, which can change size and position from day to day (geographic tongue), the condition is usually triggered by stress, allergies or hormonal changes. Even though you may feel some soreness or burning, the condition is also harmless and will usually resolve itself in a few months without treatment.

If your tongue has deep grooves (fissures) on the surface, you’ve probably inherited the condition along with 10% of the rest of the world. It’s also harmless.

If your tongue is black and coated, you probably have excess bacteria and yeast in your mouth, which collects on the papillae and causes the discolouration. This is also harmless and can be alleviated by brushing your tongue with your toothbrush a couple of times a day and/or rinsing your mouth with mouthwash or diluted hydrogen peroxide.

If your tongue is white and coated, you may be dehydrated. Other causes are: smoking, drinking alcohol or thrush (a mouth infection).

If your tongue has a yellowish tint, you probably have a fungal or bacterial infection in the mouth. You may also have jaundice or gastric reflux, which causes your stomach acids to affect your mouth’s normal bacterial flora.

If your tongue looks smooth and pale, you may be lacking some nutrients, particularly Vitamin B-12 or iron.

On the other hand, if your tongue is especially red (dark pink to magenta) you may be lacking some different nutrients, such as folic acid and Vitamin B-3.

If a taste bud is inflamed, red, and a bit sore, you’ve likely got a slight infection. However, if it turns very red or white, is painful and tender, and doesn’t get better, it could be a sign of oral cancer.

If you have canker sores on your tongue, you may be feeling particularly stressed or over-tired. Biting your tongue, eating acidic fruits or being sick with a fever or cold can also trigger cankers. Although they may be especially painful, this condition is harmless. Yet, if a canker lasts over 10 days, see your doctor as this may also be a sign of oral cancer.

If your tongue is swollen, you may have a strep infection, leukemia, cancer or hyperthyroidism, so it would be good to visit your doctor. Other causes may be allergic reactions to food or even a minor side effect of a hangover, which probably does not require medical care.

If you have bumps under the surface of your tongue, you may have cancer, although many of these types of growths are just benign tumors. Tongue cancer is usually a grey/white/pink tumor on the side of the tongue.

It is sensitive and bleeds easily when disturbed. Some related symptoms are earache, bleeding in the mouth (including teeth), and pain when swallowing. Though, these symptoms alone do not signify cancer, so see a physician to be sure.

Paying attention to all these signs and keeping your tongue in a healthy condition by using mouthwash, brushing or scraping is good for you and those around you. It helps avoid spreading illnesses because bacteria from your tongue can travel to other parts of your body and possibly cause illness. Coughing and sneezing can also spread your mouth bacteria to other people and surfaces, passing along illness.

So remember, when monitoring your health, it’s good manners to stick out your tongue. Give it a chance to tell you its story.

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