Say ahh! Opening up your mouth to take a look at your tongue can help you to learn a lot about what’s going on in your body.
Your tongue does much more than just allow you to taste food. It’s necessary for a number of body functions, from speaking and swallowing to chewing and salivating (1).
What most people don’t know is that taking a peek at your tongue in a mirror from time to time can actually tell you a lot about your current state of health—from whether you might be catching a cold to dehydration.
The question is, do you know what your tongue is trying to tell you? The following list can help you understand what your tongue’s appearance and color means.
1. Pink With Papillae
POTENTIAL DIAGNOSIS: Healthy
A healthy tongue is reddish pink and free of discoloration or dirty streaks or spots. You should be able to see your taste buds, or papillae, which look like miniscule, raised dots on the surface of your tongue. (2)
2. Beefy and Bright Red
POTENTIAL DIAGNOSIS: Vitamin B12 Deficiency
If the surface of your tongue is smooth and bright red in color, you might have a vitamin B12 or folate deficiency (3). Doctors recommend taking a complete B vitamin or adding more leafy greens, such as kale and spinach, to your diet (4).
3. Swollen With Indentations
POTENTIAL DIAGNOSIS: Thyroid Disorder/Dehydration
If your tongue looks inflamed, with indentations along its edges, it may be a sign that you’re suffering from a thyroid disorder (5).
Look out for other symptoms, such as fatigue, weight gain, hair loss, low blood pressure, constipation, and muscle aches or unexplained cramps (6).
A swollen tongue, usually accompanied by a dry mouth and a sensation of thirst, may also be a sign of dehydration (7). How can you know if you’re not getting enough fluids?
According to the Institute of Medicine, men should get at least thirteen cups of fluids per day. Women should get about nine cups (8).
POTENTIAL DIAGNOSIS: Lack of sleep
Cracks, grooves, or fissures in the tongue are, in rare cases, indicators of a disorder such as Melkersson-Rosenthal syndrome or Sjorgen’s syndrome (9). But most of the time, they’re not a sign of anything serious (10).
Also known as a scrotal or plicated tongue, this is a common condition that affects between 2-5% of people in the United States. If you’re concerned, though, it’s best to talk to your doctor or dentist.
5. Black Discoloration
POTENTIAL DIAGNOSIS: Too much smoking
Black hairy tongue is a condition that involves discoloration of the tongue—the color may range from black to yellow, with a fuzzy or furry appearance.
Though this condition is harmless, it may also involve bad breath or a metallic taste in your mouth (11).
It may be caused by changes in the bacterial makeup of your mouth caused by antibiotics, mouthwash, tobacco use, or poor oral hygiene (12).
Though it tends to clear up on its own, you can see a health professional if you’re worried about the appearance of your tongue.
6. White Lesions
POTENTIAL DIAGNOSIS: Oral Thrush
Oral thrush is a condition which involves an accumulation of fungus lesions on the tongue or inner parts of the mouth, gums, and tonsils.
Lesions can make it painful to eat or swallow, and they may crack and bleed (13). Oral thrush most often affects children, seniors, and people with weak immune systems.
If you smoke, white discoloration on the tongue may be a precursor to cancer (14). You should schedule an appointment with your physician right away.
7. Painful Ulcers or Sores
POTENTIAL DIAGNOSIS: See Your Doctor
Mouth ulcers, sores, and lesions affect 80% of the population. Most people get them from time to time, but if you are especially prone to sores and lesions that don’t seem to heal, it might be a sign of a serious condition, such as cancer or an autoimmune disorder (15). You should see your doctor right away.
Doing a quick tongue check on a daily basis when you brush your teeth can help you to keep on top of your health. If you have concerns, or notice a change in the appearance of your tongue, don’t hesitate to contact a doctor.