Your tongue can reveal all sorts of surprising things about your health, from stress and vitamin deficiencies to unchecked diabetes and even 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 diabetes
If your tongue is looking white – and it’s not just from your toothpaste, then you could be suffering from oral thrush.
Oral thrush is a yeast infection that is caused by an overproduction of candida. The condition is often linked to antibiotics as these can selectively kill off 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 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.
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, then it’s best to visit a doctor, pronto.
4: Small, white patches
It could mean: you need to see a doctor
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! If removal is needed, small patches can be taken away by your doctor or dentist with a biopsy, using a scalpel or through laser therapy. Large leukoplakia patches will require oral surgery.
5: Burning tongue
It could mean: you need to change your drinking habits
If your tongue often feels like it’s burning, it could be the result of excessive irritation in the mouth or even a vitamin deficiency.
Drinking too many irritating fizzy or alcoholic beverages, overbrushing your tongue and overusing your mouthwash can all irritate the mouth tissues. If you are experiencing 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 vitamin B 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 you notice your whole tongue is a strawberry red colour, and you are a vegetarian, ask your doctor about taking supplements.
7: Geographic tongue
It could mean: nothing sinister, you’ve simply inherited it from your family
Geographic tongue is an inflammatory disorder that usually appears on the top and sides of the tongue. Typically, affected tongues have a bald, red area of varying sizes 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 of the tongue. In this situation, topical anesthetics can be used for surface numbing. Anti-inflammatory drugs (cortisonelike drugs) can also be prescribed to help control discomfort.
There has not been any report regarding geographic tongue causing cancer. In most cases, a biopsy is not necessary to establish the diagnosis because of the identifiable clinical findings.