I’m always worried about getting sick. I just sneezed—allergy attack? That little twinge in my throat—something serious? Since it’s a hassle to get to the doctor nowadays, I’m always looking for little hints as to whether consulting a professional will actually be worth my time and money.
Turns out, there is an important health indicator sitting right under my nose … literally. It turns out the tongue can be a useful tool for gauging aspects of our health (or lack thereof). Beyond telling us what tastes sweet and what tastes sour, our tongue and certain tongue problems can be a way to determine what’s going on in the body.
Tongue Problem: What’s With the Color?
The other day as I was brushing my teeth, I got a glimpse of my tongue and it just looked off. After spitting out the toothpaste and performing a further examination, I decided that it was much whiter than usual. Could it have to do with the cold I was fighting? After some digging through health journals and speaking with some dental health workers, I found that an abnormal tongue hue can be a hint that something isn’t quite right inside.
White tongue: Still wondering about my whitish tongue at my next dental visit, I asked about it as I was getting cleaned. Sure enough, “A whitish surface can be a sign of illness,” says Karen Hastey, a dental hygienist. “But it could also indicate other issues, or just a need to brush your teeth.” What other issues? It could be excessive smoking, in which case the white color can actually indicate a condition called leukoplakia, caused by irritation from tobacco—sometimes an early sign of cancer.
Oh, and I saved the best for last. It might also be (brace yourself, this is pretty gross) oral thrush, also known as a yeast infection that develops inside the mouth. “It results in the formation of white patches that look like cottage cheese,” says dental assistant Sarah Gwerder. This is common in people who have just finished taking a round of antibiotics. If the white doesn’t disappear with your cold, it’s definitely best to get it checked out by your dentist to figure out how to proceed.
Red tongue: Just as with white tongue, there are a few different reasons (besides eating a cherry-flavored popsicle) that your taster might turn red. In one condition, strawberry tongue, the tongue actually begins to resemble (you guessed it) a strawberry because of some enlarged, red taste buds. A deficiency of vitamin B-12 or folic acid could be the culprit for this.
Doesn’t exactly resemble a fruit? Maybe it looks more like a map? It could be geographic tongue, or benign migratory glossitis. The tongue resembles a map, with a pattern of red spots bordered in white. It’s usually harmless, caused by losing some of the little bumps that blanket the tongue. The cause of this is unknown, but thought to be genetic, according to the Mayo Clinic. If the patches last longer than two weeks, consult a doctor who can prescribe topical medications to alleviate any discomfort.
Blue or purple tongue: This could indicate a problem with blood circulation or a serious weakening of some area in the digestive system. (Think: a finger or a toe turning blue.) If you’re feeling off and notice this hue on your tongue, get it checked out immediately.
Yellow tongue: Our taste buds may start to look yellowish when certain kinds of bacteria take hold in the mouth and produce pigments in this shade. This color’s usually a temporary harmless problem, according to prosthodontist, Alan Carr, of the Mayo Clinic. The bacteria grow on the tongue from things like smoking, mild dehydration, fever, or excessive mouth breathing due to nasal congestion. Carr advises gently brushing your tongue with a solution of one part hydrogen peroxide and five parts water, rinsing your mouth out after. He also recommends quitting smoking.
Tongue Problem: It’s Swollen or Appears Smooth
As someone who’s suffered from food allergies, I’m the first to attest that nothing is scarier than feeling your tongue grow larger and larger while you sit futilely willing it to stop. Sudden swelling of the tongue is usually a sign of an allergic reaction—to medicine, food, or something else, like a bee sting. Sometimes your tongue may look smooth and shiny, technically called glossitis, because the bumps are lost under all the swelling. If the smooth look comes and goes regardless of your activity, the tongue may be trying to say that the body is fighting some kind of deficiency, like vitamin B-12 or iron, according to a University of Maryland Medical Center article on the tongue. Antihistamines can help relieve a swollen tongue caused by allergies. In the future, avoid whatever you ingested before the swelling started, and hightail it to the doc if it’s hard to breathe.
Tongue Problem: It Appears, Well, Hairy
I’ll start off by apologizing for evoking this mental image. “Hairy tongue is a harmless condition in which the tongue looks hairy or furry. Its appearance can be worrisome,” says an article by the Columbia University College of Dental Medicine. Worrisome may be a bit of an understatement. (Personally, I’d fear that I was transforming into some kind of a werewolf.) Seriously, though, the disorder is easily treatable and usually goes away with antibiotics. The tongue doesn’t actually grow hair (so a werewolf transformation is out)—the small bumps on tongue’s surface have just become excessively long and, for some reason, aren’t being worn down by normal daily activities. Since they’re longer, they attract and foster bacteria, which in turn grow and take on a dark color, resembling hair. “This is common in people with poor dental hygiene, people receiving chemotherapy, or people with diabetes,” says Gwerder. One fabulous reason to keep up that brushing and flossing.
Tongue Problem: Bumps
In high school, a friend told me that a canker sore was a sign of herpes. I believed her, living in secret fear that I had somehow contracted one of the STDs that the Sex Ed teachers used in their arsenal of fear tactics. Well—no surprise—my friend wasn’t exactly correct. I was actually suffering only from an average canker sore brought on from eating way too much pineapple in one sitting. Canker sores can be caused by irritation, as in my case, along with fatigue, stress, allergies, and irritation, according to the American Dental Association. They aren’t contagious and they heal all on their own. Non-canker sore bumps could be a cold sore, also called fever blisters or herpes simplex. These are contagious and can be controlled with medication.
The way I see it, prevention of illness is a heck of a lot easier than deciphering my taste buds’ color-coded message. Practicing good oral hygiene and eating a variety of whole foods will easily help me avoid most of these icky issues. If not? Hey, sickness happens. Modern medicine is a luxury of living in the 21st century. So next time my tongue looks anything but pink and covered in small, happy bumps, I’m going to think twice about my overall health and hightail it to the doctor if something seems off.