Brushing and flossing and gargling can seem like such a chore, but we all know just how important all of the above is to your oral health. However, did you know that your tongue can tell you things about your general health, as well? It's true! We spoke to several dentists to get the 4-1-1 on what your current tongue status may be saying about the rest of your body.
There are two types of white patches that may appear on your tongue: those that rub off and those that don't rub off. The former is likely thrush, or candidiasis, says NYC dentist Sivan Finkel. "Thrush is a fungus which is opportunistic and is usually seen in older patients or patients with compromised immune systems," he explains. "It signals an issue with immune system."
White spots that don't rub off may be more alarming. Dr. Finkel says this is called leukoplakia and could be a precursor to cancer. It's most often seen in heavy smokers.
A Smooth, Glossy Surface
A healthy and happy tongue is supposed to be slightly bumpy and pink, says Dr. Lana Rozenberg, a NYC-based celebrity cosmetic dentist. "If your tongue is smooth, then this could be a sign of B12 or iron deficiency." However, your tongue could also have a glossy sheen and be slightly more red in color if this is the case.
When the color of your tongue changes, your body is likely trying to tell you something.
"If your tongue looks dark black or brown, and tongue papillae grow long and look hairy, that is indicative that oral hygiene needs to be better," says Dr. Rozenberg. "Also, people who have diabetes or are receiving chemotherapy can develop a hairy tongue."
Additionally, a dark, strawberry red color with pronounced bumps could indicate that you have a high fever, she explains. It may even be a sign of scarlet fever, which needs to be treated with antibiotics. If it's just the tip that's red, that could indicate some kind of psychological stress.
Dr. Malecki adds that a very black tongue could be linked to tobacco or antibiotic use, or even be caused by very poor oral hygiene.
If your tongue feels abnormally swollen, chances are you're having an allergic reaction to something, says Dr. Maged Malecki, owner and dental director of Boston Dental. That reaction could be caused by anything from a food or drink you consumed to a bug bite (yikes) to something more systematic.
If your tongue is consistently swollen, denoted by teeth-shaped scalloping on the sides, that could be a sign of underlying conditions, as well. These range from "a thyroid problem to even stress that is causing you to push your tongue up to your teeth," says Dr. Malecki.
Lumps and Bumps
"A lump or sore that doesn't go away in two weeks – even if it's not painful – could be a precursor to cancer and should be biopsied," says Dr. Finkel, who adds that oral cancer is very treatable if caught early.
Specifically, swollen white nodes toward the back of the tongue could be a sign you have HPV, he explains. "HPV is now the leading cause of oropharyngeal cancer. If nodes like these are seen, again, they should be biopsied."
Many of us have had a bout of canker sores, and it's never fun or pretty. Turns out, these painful red bumps could be a sign of something beyond a sore spot. "Canker sores on the tongue can be indicative of excessive stress," says Dr. Rozenberg. "You may also be getting over a cold or a flu and your immune system is working overtime."
It goes without saying that if you're experiencing anything funky with your tongue, a visit to your doctor or dentist is a must.