What Tongue Problems Might Mean for Your Oral Health
Albert Einstein famously stuck his out and Chinese medicine practitioners read it for clues to inner health. We're talking tongue -- that undulating muscle covered with pointy papillae and 10,000 taste buds that sense sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. The tongue's surface has thousands of bacteria -- some good for oral health, as in probiotics, and some bad (as in bad breath). When everything is OK, the tongue is pinkish and sits comfortably in your mouth. Chances are you rarely think about it unless you're cleaning it (you do, don't you?) when you brush your teeth. Use a tongue scraper or toothbrush to remove plaque and bacteria and keep breath fresh.
Sometimes, however, the tongue changes. Tongue disorders with no serious health consequences -- but lots of "ick" factor -- include black hairy tongue, yellow tongue, and geographic tongue. (Geographic tongue causes smooth red patches with raised edges.) These conditions may be from bacterial overgrowth, an immune system glitch, or an allergy.
Other tongue problems include small sores on the edges of the tongue that pop up from stress; lesions (raised smooth white areas), which can indicate oral cancer; and thrush, a yeast infection that turns the tongue white.
If you have tongue discoloration, you might need antibiotics or other medication, but first try saltwater rinses, brushing, and flossing a lot. Stop using mouthwash or toothpaste with peroxide or astringents, such as menthol. And don't smoke! If symptoms -- especially a hard and white lesion -- last 10 days, see your dentist or otolaryngologist. It may save your life.