Patchy, cracked or burning tongue? This is what your tongue is trying to tell you

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  • Your tongue can reveal all sorts of surprising things about your health, from stress and vitamin deficiencies to your risk of oral cancer.

    Find out what your tongue could be trying to tell you with our handy guide…

    1: White, lumpy tongue

    It could mean: you have thrush

    If your tongue looks white – and it’s not your toothpaste, then you could be suffering from oral thrush.

    Oral thrush is a yeast infection caused by an overproduction of candida. The condition is often linked to antibiotics as these can kill off good bacteria and allow yeast to take over.

    Thrush, which can be painful and cause food to taste a bit strange, typically occurs in young children but can also affect people with autoimmune diseases, diabetes that isn’t well controlled, chemotherapy patients and the elderly.

    Treat it! If you suspect you might have thrush, see your doctor. Unlike other yeast infections, thrush can’t be treated with over-the-counter products

    2: A painful, cracked tongue

    It could mean: you need to step up your brushing

    Sometimes referred to as ‘fissured tongue’, a cracked tongue is rarely a cause for concern and is considered very normal.

    The condition is thought to be genetic (over 80% of Down’s Syndrome children have fissured tongues) and just as wrinkles deepen with age, so can the cracks on the tongue.

    Problems only tend to arise if poor dental hygiene causes debris to collect in the cracks, which can lead to infection. Symptoms can include a sore or burning tongue.

    Treat it! If you have any concerns, it’s a good idea to get your tongue checked out by a dentist, who can clean out the fissures and recommend the best oral hygiene practices. 

    stressed woman photo

    3: Canker sores

    It could mean: you’re stressed

    Canker sores are punched-out, painful areas that occur on the tongue or cheeks. They are most uncomfortable for the first four to five days, then subside and eventually disappear within two weeks.

    Canker sores are thought to be caused by a virus and typically occur when people are run down or stressed.  Other causes can include excessive consumption of acidic or spicy foods, vitamin deficiencies, hormones, stress or autoimmune disorders.

    Treat it! If you experience canker sores accompanied by a fever, you have difficulty swallowing or the sores last for more than three weeks, visit a doctor, pronto.

    4: Small, white patches 

    It could mean: you are at risk of oral cancer

    Small, white patches appearing on the tongue can be caused by a condition called Leukoplakia.
    Smoking is the most common cause of Leukoplakia, but other irritants can trigger it too, such as rough, uneven teeth, injury to the side of the cheek from biting, chewing tobacco and inflammatory conditions of the body.

    Leukoplakia often goes away on it’s own, but in 5-17% of cases it can develop into oral cancer, so it’s always best to get it checked out by your dentist or doctor if you have concerns.

    Treat it! Small patches can be removed by your doctor or dentist using a scalpel or laser. Larger leukoplakia patches will require oral surgery.

    5: Burning tongue

    It could mean: you’re drinking too much

    A burning sensation on the tongue can be caused by irritation or a vitamin deficiency.

    Drinking too many irritating fizzy or alcoholic beverages, overbrushing your tongue or overusing your mouthwash can irritate the mouth tissues. If you experience a burning sensation in your mouth, try to drink fewer or less acidic drinks.

    Deficiencies in B vitamins and minerals including iron and zinc can also contribute to burning tongue syndrome by affecting the health of your oral tissues. Make sure you are eating a well-balanced diet with fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dairy, nuts, seeds and healthy proteins.

    Treat it! Make sure you’re drinking plenty of water, cut down on acidic drinks and visit your doctor for a blood test to find out if you should be taking additional vitamin supplements.

    6: Red tongue

    It could mean: you have a B12 deficiency

    A glossy, bright red tongue may be a sign your body is lacking iron or vitamin B12. Both of these nutrients are needed to mature papillae on the tongue and if your body is deficient in them, you can lose the papillae, which can make your tongue appear very smooth.

    In severe cases, this “balding” can cause pain when eating hot liquids or spicy foods. Vegetarians are especially prone to low levels of B12, which is found in certain meats.

    Treat it! If your tongue is a strawberry red colour, ask your doctor for advice on supplements.

    7: Geographic tongue

    It could mean: nothing at all – you’ve simply inherited it from your family

    Geographic tongue is an inflammatory disorder that usually affects the top and sides of the tongue. Typically, affected tongues have a bald, red area of varying size that is surrounded, at least in part, by an irregular white border.

    Treat it! In most cases, there is no need for treatment of this condition. Occasionally, geographic tongue may cause a burning or smarting sensation. In this case, topical anaesthetics can be used for surface numbing. Anti-inflammatory drugs (cortisone-like drugs) can also be prescribed to help control discomfort.

    There have not been any reports of geographic tongue causing cancer. In most cases, biopsies are not necessary to establish a diagnosis.

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