When we become unwell, we automatically look out for symptoms affecting overall health, i.e., the skin, blood pressure, energy levels, etc., but we often overlook one important organ also related to good health, which is the tongue.

What does the tongue do?

When we talk about the tongue, we often refer to its ability to differentiate the 5 different types of tastes, ranging from bitter, sweet, salty, spicy or sour tastes, and overlook its other functions.

Being an organ that is flexible and mobile, our tongue also helps in functions such as speaking, touching, swallowing and sucking. It can also sense hot and cold temperatures – you can burn your tongue drinking very hot coffee or eating frozen food.

Did you know your dentist can also examine your tongue for symptoms related to oral cancer?

A healthy tongue

Here are some general pointers on what to look out for changes on your tongue that may indicate a health problem.

A healthy tongue is typically pinkish in color, but it can vary in lighter or darker shades depending on ethnicity.

If you examine your tongue closely, you will see it has a rather rough texture as it is covered with many small nodules called papillae. These papillae contain taste buds and temperature sensors.

An unhealthy tongue

Common signs of an unhealthy tongue can include:

  • a significant color change from the normal shade you are used to seeing
  • new lumps or bumps on the tongue
  • experiencing pain when eating, drinking or swallowing
  • sores on the tongue

Common tongue abnormalities

White tongue – when you find thick, white patches on the tongue, these are often harmless and a good brushing over with a toothbrush can remove them. However, the patches could be an indication of a condition that needs to be treated, such as:

Oral thrush – a fungal infection that creates thick, white to greenish patches on top of the tongue as well as the insides of your cheeks. This infection is commonly found in the following groups, where more emphasis should be placed on daily dental care:

  • Infants and toddlers
  • older adults
  • diabetics
  • people who use dentures and dental braces
  • people who use inhaled steroids

Oral lichen planus – when you find white lines across the top of the tongue, which can resemble lace. It is not a dangerous condition, and good mouth hygiene can reduce or stop it.

Leukoplakia – symptoms are similar to oral thrush, but leukoplakia is due to an overgrowth of mouth cells. Leukoplakia must be diagnosed and treated by a dentist, as some cases can lead to cancer.

Red tongue – this is when your tongue appears to be more reddish or purplish compared to its normal color shade. The following conditions could be a cause of red tongue:

Geographic tongue – red patches with white boarders on the tongue. It is usually harmless, and one may notice a change in the patterns over time.

Vitamin B deficiency – a deficiency of folic acid (vitamin B-9) and cobalamin (vitamin B-12). The condition goes away once the deficiency is corrected.

Kawasaki disease – mainly occurs in children under 5 years. It is a more serious condition as it causes a strawberry-like appearance in the tongue, accompanied by high fever. You may also find large bumps on the tongue. Left untreated, Kawasaki disease may increase the risk of heart complications.

Yellow tongue – primarily caused by bacterial overgrowth, and other causes like:

  • chewing tobacco or smoking
  • certain vitamins
  • jaundice, but in rare circumstances
  • psoriasis

Black and hairy tongue – again, this condition is normally caused by bacterial overgrowth but is usually harmless although it does look concerning. The tongue looks darkish brown, black or yellow.

It may also be due to:

  • antibiotics
  • chemotherapy
  • diabetes
  • overgrowth of papillae
  • poor oral hygiene

Sores and bumps on the tongue – these should be diagnosed by an oral surgeon or an ENT (ear, nose and throat) specialist, especially if there is pain.

Sores and bumps on the tongue may be a result of:

  • accidental tongue biting
  • burns from extremely hot or cold food / liquid
  • mouth ulcers (cankers)
  • tobacco usage

Tongue sores and bumps that do not cure within a few weeks could be a sign of oral cancer. Do note that pain is not present in some cases of oral cancer.


While often overlooked, your tongue does indicate a lot about your health.

If there is any change in color in your tongue lasting more than 1 – 2 weeks, consult a doctor as soon as possible for proper diagnosis and early treatment.

We hope our readers have taken note how good oral health practices relate to a healthy tongue.

This article is meant to provide general information about the tongue. It is not be taken as medical advice which should always be left to the care of a qualified medical practitioner, especially for readers who have current medical issues.

By Aaron
28th August 20:30 2020

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