You’re probably asked to stick out your tongue and say “ahh” whenever your visit the physician, right? There is good reason for this.
Physicians and dentists can get a peek into the general and oral health of their patients by examining the tongue. Since your tongue health can be an indication of an undiagnosed condition, it’s important to take good care of this often-overlooked muscular organ.
As noted by the Cleveland Clinic, healthy tongues are pink in color and are covered with papillae, better known as taste buds. However, sometimes the tongue can become sore or change color—and while it’s usually a temporary problem, it can be a sign of a more serious health issue. You should consult a doctor or dentist if there are noticeable changes in the color, shape or feeling of your tongue persisting more than two weeks.
If you notice your tongue is white or has white spots, this could be due to a number of reasons. Oral thrush is a yeast infection that causes white patches inside of the mouth and tongue, the Cleveland Clinic explains. Typically seen in infants, the elderly or those who have a compromised immune response, it can also happen after taking a course of antibiotics or steroids.
Oral lichen planus gives the tongue a white, lace-like appearance. The cause is unknown, but it generally goes away without treatment. Avoiding tobacco products and foods that irritate your mouth (along with practicing good oral hygiene) can help clear it up more quickly.
Leukoplakia is an overgrowth of cells in the mouth. These white patches can be due to irritation or the use of tobacco products. Leukoplakia can be a precursor to oral cancer—so your employees should see a dentist or doctor whenever they notice any white patches or lumps in their mouth or tongue.
A noticeably red tongue can also indicate a number of health conditions. If your tongue has an ever-shifting map of reddish spots with white borders, this could be a sign of “geographic tongue.” According to Mayo Clinic, these patches are a result of missing papillae and the condition itself is harmless. Although it usually goes away on its own, it can cause discomfort while eating spicy foods. If it doesn’t go away within 10 days, consult your physician or dentist. Vitamin deficiencies, such as a lack of folic acid and vitamin B-12, can also give the tongue a red appearance.
If a red tongue is accompanied by a high fever, this could be a result of Kawasaki disease. Most often seen in children younger than 5 years old, this a serious condition. Besides a tongue that looks like a strawberry, the child may suffer from red and swollen hands and feet. Scarlet fever also gives the tongue a red and bumpy appearance, and is accompanied by a high fever.
Black, Hairy Tongues
When the tongue looks like it has grown a head of black hair, there is no other name to give it but “black, hairy tongue.” While not common, it’s due to the papillae growing extremely long. These hair-like projections can harbor bacteria, resulting in a black, hairy appearance. This condition is often the consequence of poor oral hygiene, diabetes or receiving antibiotic or chemotherapy treatment.
Keeping a Clean Tongue
To fight gum disease and tooth decay, brush twice a day with fluoride toothpaste and use floss to clean bacteria and plaque from the teeth. But, don’t stop there. Remember, your tongue health matters as well.
As noted by the Academy of General Dentistry, post-nasal drip is a common source of bacteria, and bacteria adheres to the tongue. When the volatile sulfur compounds in bacteria interact with amino acids, halitosis (or bad breath) is the result. So, brushing your tongue after cleaning your teeth reduces bacteria in the mouth and helps keep breath fresh. And for those who don’t like brushing their tongue, tongue scrapers—which are sold in most drug stores—can easily do the job. Since bacteria tends to reappear quickly, the source notes that the fresh-breath effect is often short-lived.
Rinsing with an antimicrobial mouthwash may help keep bacteria at bay for longer. In addition to tongue cleaning, other tips to combat bad breath include drinking lots of water throughout the day, keeping a toothbrush at work and chewing sugarless gum. All of these actions can help you optimize your dental health and thus, enjoy better overall health.