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What Your Tongue Is Telling You About Your Health

When you think about, we frequently mention the tongue in conversation with phrases like “Bite your tongue” or “It’s on the tip of my tongue,” but how much do we really know about it? Read on for important information about the tongue, tongue health, and oral hygiene (and none of it is tongue in cheek).

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Tongue 101

The tongue is an important digestive organ that consists of a network of eight muscles, but unlike most muscles, the tongue functions independently from bones. The tongue is an important part of the digestive system; in fact, the tongue and salivary glands start the digestion process. But the tongue isn’t just the facilitator of digestion, it can also be an indicator of healthy or unhealthy digestion as well as other physical concerns.

Tongue health is evaluated in terms of wetness, color, and texture. Generally speaking, a healthy tongue is wet, pink, and smooth. According to Ayurvedic medicine, the tongue plays a pivotal role in physical health diagnosis, and discoloration in one particular area of the tongue can indicate trouble in the organ corresponding to that area.

Colors And Conditions

Here are some common tongue conditions and appearances that may indicate other underlying health concerns.

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Red Lesions:  Possible Tongue Cancer

Think of red lesions on your tongue as red flags:  They can indicate tongue cancer. If you notice red lesions, consult with a doctor immediately. Don’t confuse this type of lesion with cankers or even cold sores, both of which usually disappear after about two weeks. When in doubt, see a doctor. Age is not a factor when it comes to tongue cancer.

Rough, Dry Tongue: Dehydration

A rough, dry tongue could be a sign of dehydration, which means there isn’t enough saliva to lubricate the tongue and soft palate. Getting enough fluids and electrolytes can help to return a dry tongue to a smooth pink state. Because saliva assists in dissolving and transporting solutes to the taste receptor pores, dry mouth (xerostomia) can affect taste. When the tongue is dehydrated, it produces less saliva, which disrupts the flow to  taste receptors.

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Black Or Brown Hairs (Fuzzy Tongue): Poor Oral Hygiene

Smoking and poor oral hygiene can cause fuzzy tongue. The “fuzz” is bacteria buildup on the papillae, the bumps and taste buds that rest on the tongue’s surface. The papillae usually get worn down by the wear and tear of chewing and drinking, but they can become overgrown and turn into magnets for bacteria. Too much build-up, and you could notice a decrease in both taste sensation and saliva production. Proper oral hygiene can prevent and resolve fuzzy tongue.

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White Or Gray Patches: Leukoplakia

Thick, raised patches, known as leukoplakia, can often form on the mucosal tissue inside your mouth when your tongue is white or gray. Caused by irritants from smoking, long-term alcohol use, and trauma from rough and uneven teeth or from dentures, leukoplakia develops from constantly rubbing your tongue on the teeth. Usually painless, this condition should go away within two weeks.

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White Or Yellow Color:  Impaired Digestion

A white- or yellow-coated tongue indicates of some type of digestive problem. A white, cheesy coating differs from the white or gray patches of leukoplakia. When the digestive system is taxed, usually from converting refined carbohydrates like sugar-rich foods or pasta, bacteria can build up on the tongue and result in a white color. Chronic, thick white residue on the tongue is often indicative of candida, a yeast infection. Also known as thrush, candida results from dead matter accumulating in the papillae. A yellow color on the tongue is usually caused by poor oral hygiene, alcohol, dehydration, or consuming coffee or black tea. You should be able to brush yellow tongue away, but if the yellow color persists for more than two weeks you may want to consult with a dentist or a doctor.