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Tongue Signs -That may Indicate Disease or Deficiency in the Body

General | August 15, 2018 | Author: Naturopath


Tongue Signs -That may Indicate Disease or Deficiency in the Body

The appearance of your tongue can say a lot about your current health. Next time you’re looking in the mirror stick out your tongue and have a close look. A healthy tongue should be pink and covered with tiny, pinkish-white bumps (papillae), which are really short, fine, hairlike projections. Any deviation from this appearance may be cause for concern and you should talk to your naturopath or doctor.

Common tongue signs

Naturopaths will often use the tongue as part of a physical examination when taking a client’s medical history. Here’s a list of the most common tongue signs and what they mean.

White coating

White tongue is the result of an overgrowth and swelling of the papillae on the surface of your tongue. The appearance of a white coating is caused by debris, bacteria and dead cells getting stuck between the enlarged papillae.

This can be caused by:

  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Dry mouth
  • Dehydration
  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Excessive alcohol intake
  • Mouth breathing
  • Low roughage diet
  • Irritation from sharp tooth edges or dental appliances
  • Fever

Conditions associated with a white coating or spots on the tongue include:

Common tongue signsOral thrush—if your tongue has a white coating this could be a sign of a yeast infection such as oral thrush. It appears as white patches that are often the consistency of cottage cheese. This infection is commonly seen in the elderly, infants, denture wearers or in people with weakened immune systems. It is often a side-effect from antibiotics and inhaled steroids for asthma.
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Leukoplakia—a condition where the cells in the mouth grow excessively which leads to white patches on the tongue and inside the mouth. Smoking is the most common cause, but other irritants can result in this condition as well.

Oral lichen planus—a chronic inflammatory condition that affects the mucous membranes in your mouth and tongue. Oral lichen planus often appears as white, lacy patches; red swollen tissues or open sores.

Black hairy tongue

Black hairy tongue is a temporary, harmless oral condition that gives the tongue a dark, furry look. It usually starts as a yellow coating which then darkens over time. The distinct appearance usually results from an accumulation of dead skin cells on the many tiny papillae on the surface of the tongue. These papillae are longer than normal which easily trap bacteria, yeast, tobacco, food or other substances and become stained.

Although black hairy tongue may look alarming, typically it doesn't cause any health problems. Eliminating possible causes or contributing factors and practicing good oral hygiene usually resolves black hairy tongue.

If your tongue is red

A red tongue could be a sign of:

  • Common tongue signsVitamin deficiency: a lack of iron, folic acid and B12 may cause your tongue to have a reddish, shiny and swollen appearance (glossitis).
  • Geographic tongue: an inflammatory but harmless condition affecting the surface of the tongue. It results in lesions that give the tongue a map like or geographic appearance. The lesioned areas are a result of missing papillae and give a smooth, red appearance, often with slightly raised borders. Although it causes increased sensitivity to certain foods it isn’t associated with any health problems.
  • Scarlet fever: If you have a high fever and a red tongue, you need to see your family doctor. Scarlett fever is an infection that causes the tongue to have a red and bumpy strawberry-like appearance.
  • Kawasaki disease: a condition that can also cause the tongue to have a strawberry-like surface. Kawasaki disease is a serious disorder that is seen in children under the age of five and requires prompt medical assessment.

Enlarged tongue

Macroglossia is the medical term for an enlarged tongue. It commonly leads to a scalloped appearance around the edges because the tongue pushes against the teeth causing indentations. Macroglossia and tongue scalloping is a non-specific sign which may be associated with a variety of infiltrative or inflammatory conditions like Down syndrome, hypothyroidism, tuberculosis, sarcoidosis, amyloidosis, multiple myeloma, angioedema and certain infections. Tongue scalloping without enlargement can also be seen with obstructive sleep apnoea. While this might all sound alarming, some people have a scalloped tongue for no known cause.

An acute allergic reaction to foods can result in an enlarged tongue and requires immediate medical attention.

Sore and bumpy

Painful bumps on your tongue can be due to:

Trauma: accidentally biting your tongue or scalding it on something straight out of the oven can result in a sore tongue until the damage heals. Grinding or clenching your teeth can also irritate the sides of your tongue and cause it to become painful.

Smoking: soreness can be a result of cigarette smoke irritating your tongue.

Mouth ulcers: many people develop mouth ulcers on the tongue at one time or another. If they reoccur it could be a sign of nutritional deficiencies, stress or food sensitivities.

Oral cancer: a lump or sore on your tongue that doesn’t go away within three to four weeks could be an indication of oral cancer. If you are experiencing these symptoms, you should visit your doctor straight away.

Common tongue signsFissured tongue

Fissures on the tongue often present themselves as deep grooves or lines. They have been linked to ageing, Down syndrome, psoriasis, and Sjogren’s syndrome.

The grooves might get better when your health practitioner treats the underlying condition that’s causing them, if there is one.

Tongue signs summarised

  • How your tongue looks says something about your health
  • An enlarged, coated or red tongue can be a sign of infection, underlying disease, nutritional deficiencies or allergy
  • Sometimes tongue signs are harmless but if they are causing problems you should get it looked at  Australia’s best online discount chemist


Khanal R, et al. Clue in the tongue. J Community Hosp Intern Med Perspect. 2015 Feb 3;5(1):26107

Byrd JA, et al. Glossitis and other tongue disorders. Dermatol Clin. 2003 Jan;21(1):123-34

Gurvits GE, Tan A. Black hairy tongue syndrome. World J Gastroenterol. 2014 Aug 21;20(31):10845-50

Scully C, Kirby J. Statement on mouth cancer diagnosis and prevention. Br Dent J. 2014 Jan;216(1):37-8

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