6 Common Tongue Problems: Causes and Symptoms
Most tongue problems are harmless and resolve on their own. Some may indicate a serious medical condition. Learn more about the causes and symptoms of six common tongue problems.
How is Your Tongue Health?
Is your tongue sore, painful, or swollen? Has it recently changed in size, color, or appearance? Does the condition of your tongue cause frustration and discomfort?
A painful sore tongue is a common problem. A minor infection or injury, such as biting your tongue, is the most likely cause. Most tongue irritations are harmless and resolve on their own.
In some cases, however, a tongue problem may indicate a serious medical condition such as a vitamin deficiency, oral cancer, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
For this reason, it is always a good idea to see a doctor or dentist if your painful sore tongue is an ongoing problem.
Human Tongue Anatomy
You may think your tongue is a single muscle. Some call it "the strongest muscle in the body." But your tongue is actually a group of muscles that allows you to taste, chew, and swallow food. These muscles also help you form words so you can talk.
Your tongue contains a moist tissue lining called a mucous membrane. Small nodules or papillae cover the upper surface. Your taste buds -- which number about 9,000 -- are scattered between the papillae.
A healthy tongue is smooth, moist, and pink. Many things can change its appearance and function. A discolored or painful sore tongue may relate to the tongue itself, or it may indicate a health problem. Here are six common tongue problems and their likely causes.
1. Painful Sore Tongue
Do you have a painful sore tongue? Trauma is a possible cause. Biting your tongue, or scalding it on a hot food or beverage, is a common tongue trauma.
Your pain may be due to habitual teeth grinding or inflamed taste buds. Inflammation can cause tiny bumps to form along the length of your tongue, resulting in pain and soreness.
Do you smoke cigarettes? Excessive smoking can cause numerous mouth and tongue conditions, as well as other health problems.
Your painful sore tongue may be due to stress, which may show up as canker sores. Although the cause of these mouth ulcers is unclear, stress seems to play a contributing role.
Burning tongue syndrome, also known as burning mouth syndrome, is a common menopause symptom. The painful, burning sensations can affect the tongue, gums, lips, and other parts of the mouth.
Sometimes, a painful sore tongue is a sign of anemia or diabetes. Chronic soreness and painful lumps may indicate oral cancer. Early detection is important for successful treatment.
Ask your doctor or dentist for an oral cancer screening if you notice any of the early warning signs, including persistent tongue problems.
2. Strawberry Tongue
A strawberry tongue is named for its appearance: large taste buds dot the surface of the tongue. Many things can turn a healthy, pink tongue into a bright, red one that resembles a strawberry.
A vitamin deficiency is the most common cause. Your tongue may look red if your body is not getting enough vitamin B9 (folic acid), vitamin B12 (cobalamin), or other B complex vitamins. These nutrients help your body convert carbohydrates into energy.
Kawasaki syndrome, a rare childhood disease that affects the blood vessels, causes red skin rashes and a strawberry tongue. While the symptoms may scare parents, they can be treated with medications.
Scarlet fever, a once-feared childhood illness, also produces a strawberry tongue. The illness is uncommon today, and antibiotics can treat the fever and streptococcal infection.
3. White Tongue
Is your tongue covered with white spots or a white coating? Many things can cause a white tongue, from yeast infections to medications to leukoplakia.
Common in tobacco users, leukoplakia causes excessive cell growth on the tongue, resulting in white patches. While it is not dangerous on its own, leukoplakia can be a precursor to oral cancer.
Candidiasis, also called oral thrush, is a yeast infection that causes white tongue patches with a "cottage cheese" consistency. Oral thrush is most common in babies and elderly adults. It may also affect people with diabetes, asthma, or lung disease.
Oral lichen planus causes raised, lace-like white lines on your tongue. The cause is not always known, but tobacco use and poor dental hygiene contribute to its development.
4. Yellow Tongue
Does the surface of your tongue look yellow? A yellow tongue may indicate jaundice, a skin-yellowing condition that points to a gallbladder or liver problem. Usually, however, a yellow tongue is harmless and temporary.
Changes to papillae on the surface of the tongue cause the yellow color. Enlarged nodes combine with mouth bacteria to produce yellow pigments on the tongue.
Good oral hygiene is the best treatment for a yellow tongue. Without proper care, the condition can develop into black hairy tongue.
5. Black Hairy Tongue
Despite its startling appearance, black hairy tongue is another harmless condition that involves the papillae.
Papillae grow on your tongue throughout your life. Daily mouth activities usually wear them down and keep them short.
Some tongues, however, have long papillae that normal activities cannot wear down. The overgrown nodes are more likely to harbor bacteria and give the tongue a hairy appearance.
Tobacco products, antibiotics, and cancer drugs contribute to black hairy tongue. Good oral hygiene usually resolves the problem without medical treatment.
6. Geographic Tongue
Is your tongue missing papillae? Does it have smooth, red patches with raised borders? You may have geographic tongue.
Geographic tongue is named for its map-like appearance. As one raised patch heals, the problem moves to a different part of the tongue. This causes your tongue's "landscape" to change frequently.
A geographic tongue may be sensitive to certain substances, but the condition is harmless. It is not linked to infection or cancer.
The cause of geographic tongue is unclear, but genetics may play a role in its development. The condition may persist for months or even years, but eventually it resolves on its own.
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- National Institutes of Health. (February 20, 2012). "Tongue Disorders." National Library of Medicine / Medline Plus. Retrieved April 30, 2012.
- UMMC. (2012). "Tongue Problems Overview." University of Maryland Medical Center. Retrieved April 27, 2012.
- Wyatt, Alfred D. Jr. (March 7, 2011). "Tongue Problem Basics." WebMD Medical Reference. Retrieved April 27, 2012.
The information presented in this article is not intended as medical advice, nor is it a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment by a qualified medical professional.
© 2012 Annette R. Smith
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