What your tongue reveals about your health

As strange as it sounds, your tongue can actually tell you a lot about your health. While merely looking at your tongue won’t automatically let you know if you’re running a fever or if you have the flu, it can help to use it as a visual aid along with any other symptoms you might have. After all, as any adult knows to be true, it only takes a tiny, little germ to take you from being a totally healthy, functioning human being to being bedridden with a cold that makes you feel like death. And it can be hard to recognize when something is wrong with your body — so at least one thing you can always check is your tongue!

If your tongue is anything but normal-looking, there are a lot of different things that can be going on. Most aren’t too serious, but some might require you to talk to your doctor. So, open wide and look in the mirror because your tongue might just be trying to tell you something.

If your tongue is very red, it could signal this rare disease

While a pink, dark pink, and even red tongue is normal, a tongue that’s super red can actually be a sign of a rare disease that you’ll want to get checked out. In fact, a bright red tongue is also known as strawberry tongue, and it could mean a few different things. According to WebMD, strawberry tongue could mean something as simple as you have a food allergy. It could also mean that you are experiencing toxic shock syndrome, a “life-threatening side effect of certain bacterial infections,” which would need to be treated immediately.

One of the most intense diseases associated with strawberry tongue is Kawasaki disease. “Kawasaki disease is rare,” Healthline noted. “It’s not clear why some people develop it and others don’t. It’s most common in children, but it can occur at any age. The primary sign of Kawasaki disease is inflamed arteries.” So, if your tongue is bright red, it might be best to go in to your doctor to make sure you don’t have this condition.

White patches on your tongue could signal thrush

There are many different things that can make your tongue look strange. One of the most common things you might notice on your tongue are white patches. If this is the case, your tongue could be telling you that you have oral thrush, which isn’t something to be too concerned about, but it is still important to recognize it and talk to your doctor.

According to the Mayo Clinic, oral thrush happens when “the fungus Candida albicans accumulates on the lining of your mouth.” Additionally, the Mayo Clinic noted, “Oral thrush causes creamy white lesions, usually on your tongue or inner cheeks.” Symptoms of oral thrush include loss of taste, burning, soreness, and even bleeding. Typically, oral thrush can be treated with anti-fungal medication, but, if you have a weakened immune system (due to cancer or another disease), oral thrush can cause more infections throughout your body, so it’s best to see a medical professional.

A hairy tongue could be a symptom of HIV

While the thought of a hairy tongue might freak you out, it usually isn’t all that big of a deal. In fact, as strange as it may sound, a tongue that is hairy or feels like it has fuzz all over it, can actually reveal a lot about your health. Although it might feel weird, a hairy tongue occurs when the filiform papillae that grow on your tongue don’t properly shed and thus keep growing, according to Healthline. A hairy tongue might seem frustrating and annoying, but it’s actually pretty common.

However, according to Healthline, individuals “with HIV or AIDS are more likely to develop a hairy, white tongue.” In fact, Colgate noted that a hairy tongue “may be the first sign you are HIV-positive and need treatment.” So, if you have a hairy tongue, you might want to have it checked out, as you might actually have a more serious condition that you might not have previously been aware of.

A black tongue could be a medical side effect

When your tongue is anything other than it’s normal pink color, it’s only natural to feel a bit concerned. But perhaps one of the most concerning colors your tongue can be is black, which sounds a lot scarier than it typically is. Basically, a black tongue happens for a variety of reasons, but often it’s a side effect of medication. “When you have a buildup of dead skin cells on your tongue, bacteria and other substances can get caught in them,” according to Healthline. So that’s what can cause your tongue to turn black.

Usually, a black tongue happens because of an adverse reaction to a medication, but it can also happen when you don’t brush your teeth often enough, according to Colgate. It could also be the result of a liquid-only diet or chewing tobaccoA black tongue looks scary, but it typically isn’t anything to worry too much about. However, if it doesn’t go away, you might want to see a doctor to address your concerns.

Stripes on your tongue could mean an immune system issue

If you start to notice white stripes or webs running along your tongue, then it might be a symptom of a pretty dangerous condition. Now, it’s important to recognize that stripes on your tongue are different than having a white patch all over your tongue, so look closely. According to UPMC Health Beat, those white stripes or webs on your tongue are usually a sign of oral lichen planus.

“The webbed or stripped look is caused by your immune system attacking the cells, and often hints at an inflammatory condition known as oral lichen planus,” UPMC Health Beat reported. “Lichen planus is not contagious but puts you at risk for mouth cancer, so it is important to monitor the condition.” While oral lichen planus isn’t too serious, it can cause some frustrating side effects, such as pain, discomfort, gingivitis, and bleeding gums, according to the Mayo Clinic. So, if you notice white stripes on your tongue, it would be a good idea to make an appointment with your doctor.

If your tongue feels like its on fire, you might have a nerve issue

When you were a kid, you likely made the mistake of grabbing a snack from the microwave and shoving it in your mouth while it was still burning hot. No matter how old you get, you probably still occasionally make the mistake of eating food too quickly before it’s cooled down and may end up burning your mouth. While that can cause your tongue to feel like it’s on fire, that’s a completely different condition than burning mouth syndrome, or BMS, which could be an issue with your nerves, according to Mayo Clinic

Healthline explained, “BMS has no known cause. It has been linked to abnormal function in the nerves of the mouth. Genetics and the environment are believed to play a role as well.” So, if you notice that your tongue has a burning sensation despite you not having eaten hot food, you might have burning mouth syndrome and need to speak to your doctor. BMS can be a lot worse if you’re especially stressed or anxious, so make sure to get it checked out if it gets worse.

Beware of a tongue that's too smooth

If your tongue is oddly smooth, it might be a sign that something’s wrong in your body. Though it usually isn’t anything too serious, a smooth tongue might mean that your body is lacking in nutrients like iron, or that you’ve developed glossitis, a kind of tongue inflammation.

According to Healthline, glossitis can cause all those tiny bumps on your tongue, known as papillae, to dissipate. “The papillae contain thousands of tiny sensors called taste buds and play a role in how you eat,” Healthline explained. “Severe tongue inflammation that results in swelling and redness can cause pain and may change the way you eat or speak.” Again, glossitis isn’t all that concerning, but “atrophic glossitis is often linked to an underlying nutritional deficiency of iron, folic acid, vitamin B12, riboflavin, or niacin and resolves with correction of the underlying condition,” according to American Family Physician. Choosing to seek treatment, such as antibiotics or topical remedies, would be a smart idea.

Bumps on your tongue could be more than cold sores

A lot of little kids are taught that when they get a bump on their tongue, it’s because they told a lie, as noted by Medical News Today. While that’s an amusing thought, it’s not actually true. According to UPMC Health Beat, these bumps “are most likely canker sores or cold sores,” noting, “These are caused by many things, including biting, smoking, and stress ulcers.” However, there’s also a chance that bumps on your tongue are related to sexually transmitted diseases.

One of the potential causes for a bump on your tongue could be human papillomavirus taking the form of squamous papilloma. According to Healthline, “Squamous papilloma is associated with the human papillomavirus (HPV). It’s usually a lone, irregularly shaped bump that can be treated surgically or with laser ablation.” Additionally, syphilis could also present itself with bumps on your tongue. So, if you have bumps on your tongue, it might just be a cold sore, but it could also reveal a lot more about your health.

A yellow tongue might mean you have a bacterial overgrowth

In addition to a black tongue, or a hairy tongue, a yellow tongue can be super jarring to see when you look in the mirror. However, if your tongue looks yellow, it isn’t usually all that big of a deal. According to Mayo Clinic, “Yellow tongue — a yellow discoloration of your tongue — is usually a temporary, harmless problem”

As Healthline reported, yellow tongue is usually caused by too much bacteria in your mouth, or from smoking, chewing tobacco, or even certain vitamins or minerals in your body. In which case, it might be time to make some changes in your life like quitting smoking. However, if your tongue is yellow it could also potentially indicate psoriasis or jaundice. Again, if your tongue is yellow that doesn’t typically mean anything serious is wrong, but it might mean your tongue is trying to tell you something about your health — so pay close attention. After all, your tongue might just be the first indication you have that something else is wrong with your health.

A super big tongue could mean a few issues

As odd as it may sound, it actually is possible for your tongue to be too big, and that’s not a good thing. However, an enlarged tongue is quite rare, so it’s something most people shouldn’t have to worry about. However, it does come with some adverse side effects, so you probably want to know if you have it.

According to the National Institutes of Health, a large tongue is known as macroglossia, and it’s classified as a rare disease. Per the website, “Macroglossia is the abnormal enlargement of the tongue in proportion to other structures in the mouth.” Symptoms of macroglossia include “drooling; speech impairment; difficulty eating; stridor; snoring; airway obstruction; abnormal growth of the jaw and teeth; ulceration; and/or dying tissue on the tip of the tongue,” the National Institutes of Health reported. Again, this is a rare disease, so it’s usually nothing to worry about. Still, it’s a possibility, and your tongue could be trying to tell you that you have something else going on with your body.

A lot of grooves on your tongue could signal a few disorders

A fissured tongue is one condition that isn’t really all that common. While it is totally normal to have a scratch on your tongue from an injury or accident, or from biting down on your tongue too hard, a fissured tongue is different than that. According to the American Academy of Oral Medicine, “the term fissured tongue describes the finding of multiple small furrows or grooves on the dorsal (top) surface of the tongue.” Additionally, a fissured tongue really only impacts about five percent of people in the United States, the website reported.

According to Healthline, a fissured tongue is typically associated with Down syndrome or Melkersson-Rosenthal syndrome, but could also be caused by certain vitamin deficiencies, psoriasis, or even malnutrition. If you notice fissures on your tongue, it might mean you’re lacking in a certain nutrient that your body is telling you you need. Your tongue can tell you a lot about your health, and a fissured tongue could be the first sign that something is up.

If your tongue is bumpy and feels painful, you might want to see your doctor

It’s obvious that your tongue can reveal a lot of different things about your health, and even a bumpy tongue can mean many, many things. According to Medical News Today, “Tongue bumps are common, and there are many possible causes, including injuries, allergies, and infections. Although tongue bumps can feel strange and may cause concern, they are usually harmless.” If you have bumps on your tongue and soreness associated with those bumps, then something might be wrong. Now, sore bumps on your tongue could definitely just be from eating something that burned your tongue, having mouth ulcers, or just biting your tongue really hard, but, if they persist, you probably want to get them checked out. 

According to Healthline, “If soreness and bumps don’t go away within a couple of weeks, this could be a sign of oral cancer.” Getting bumps on your tongue is super common, and usually means nothing, but if the condition doesn’t improve and you notice your tongue is also sore, then your body might be trying to communicate something really important to you. It’s important to listen, and take it seriously.

A bright red tongue is a symptom of a serious fever

Again, a tongue that is pink or light red is typically pretty healthy, but if your perfectly healthy pink tongue turns a bright red, things can start to go seriously wrong. In fact, if your tongue is bright red, your body might be communicating to you that you’re sick. Really sick. And scarlet fever could very well be the issue.

According to Healthline, scarlet fever “can make the tongue look like it has strawberries on top of it.” Additionally, Heathline noted, “Your tongue may also have large bumps.” Scarlet fever is a super serious condition, and, if you have it, you need to see a doctor right away. According to Mayo Cinic“if left untreated, scarlet fever can result in more-serious conditions that affect the heart, kidneys and other parts of the body.” It might be rare, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get, especially if you have strep throat, which can often lead to scarlet fever or vice versa. 

A pink tongue is perfectly healthy

Of course, most of the time when you look at your tongue in the mirror, it will look exactly the same as it has always looked. You can use your tongue to evaluate your overall health, and, if something is wrong, you can know by looking at your tongue in a lot of cases.

But in order to know what an unhealthy tongue looks like, it’s important to know what a healthy tongue looks like, so you can gauge where yours falls on the scale. According to Healthline, “A healthy tongue is typically pink in color, but it can still vary slightly in dark and light shades. Your tongue also has small nodules on the top and bottom. These are called papillae.” If you want to know whether or not something is wrong with your body, check out your tongue, and, if you notice anything suspicious, talk to your doctor. Before you head there, keep in mind some of the mistakes most people make at the doctor’s office and try to avoid them to ensure a smooth visit.

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