Ann Clark, RDH
Basic Tongue Problems
The tongue is often known as the “strongest muscle in the body”. It is made up of a group of muscles and allows us to swallow, talk, taste, and clean the mouth. A healthy tongue is pink and covered with small bumps we call taste buds or papillae.
When your tongue experiences soreness or discoloration it can be frustrating due to its constant use. The majority of tongue problems are not serious and most can be cared for quickly; however, sometimes a discolored or painful tongue can be something more serious like a vitamin deficiency, oral cancer, or AIDS. Any persisting concerns should have medical advice.
-Leukoplakia: this condition causes excessive cell growth in the mouth causing white patches to grow. Although not always dangerous they can be a precursor to cancer so let your dentist be the judge. It can develop from irritation and is more often found in those using tobacco products.
-Oral thrush: also known as candidiasis. This is a yeast infection of the mouth. It shows up as white patches like cottage-cheese. It is more common in infants and the elderly, especially denture wearers or those with weakened immune systems. Medical conditions like diabetes, or inhaled steroids for asthma or lung disease can increase your risk. Antibiotics can kill off “good” bacteria resulting in this condition. Eating plain yogurt and medications can combat this infection.
-Oral lichen planus: this manifests itself as lacey-white lines on your tongue. Although hard to determine the cause, it often resolves on its own. Keeping up good hygiene and avoiding tobacco can help the healing process.
-Scarlet fever: contact a doctor if you have a red tongue along side a high fever. An antibiotic is necessary for this condition.
-Geographic tongue: this is known dentally as benign migratory glossitis and looks like a map pattern of reddish spots with a white border; their location often shifts. They are usually harmless and acidic foods can often sting. If discomfort persists you can be prescribed a topical medication.
-Red or strawberry tongue: many factors can cause a normally pink tongue to turn red or even look strawberry-like with enlarged, red taste buds. Vitamin deficiencies like B12 and folic acid can cause such an appearance.
-Black hairy tongue: although this looks scary it is typically non-serious. The small bumps on your tongue grow continually in your lifetime and in some people become excessively long, making it easier to harbor bacteria and cause a dark “hair-like” appearance to form. This is more commonly found in those with poor hygiene, individuals on antibiotics or chemotherapy and those with diabetes.
-Sore or bumpy tongue:
*Trauma can usually occur from biting or burning your tongue. Grinding and clenching can irritate the sides
*Canker sores or ulcers cause soreness. Their cause is unknown but stress can aid their development.
*Burning tongue syndrome can occur in post menopausal women.
*Smoking is an irritant to the tongue manifesting in soreness.
*Medical conditions like diabetes and anemia can result with a sore tongue.
*Enlarged papillae can result from irritated taste buds.
*Oral cancer- a spot that doesn’t resolve in a 2 week period needs to be checked. Many oral cancers do not
hurt in the early stages so don’t assume a lack of pain means you are okay.
Please consult your friendly dental office for an evaluation if any of these conditions arise. It’s better to be safe.
Want to learn more? Visit us at
University of Maryland Medical Center: “Tongue Problems”
University of Maryland Medical Center: “Oral Cancer”
American Dental Association: “Common Mouth Sores”
Familydoctor.org: “Mouth Problems”
Familydoctor.org “Canker Sores: What they are and what you can do about them”
Columbia University College of Dental Medicine: “Black Hairy Tongue”
Columbia University College of Dental Medicine: “Painful Papillae of the Tongue”