Tasting, swallowing, talking – none of this would be possible without your tongue. But how often do you think about this group of muscles or pay attention to it? The tongue can often act as a unique view point into a person’s overall health and wellbeing, and dentists are often the first to spot problems that tend to arise gradually. However, pain, swelling, and discoloration can start up out of nowhere and cause serious discomfort and make it hard to eat and drink. Our Cary dentist is sharing some common tongue problems, what they mean, and whether you should call your doctor or dentist.
What Is a Healthy Tongue?
Before we look at symptoms of a problem, let’s first look at what a healthy tongue is supposed to look like. The tongue is a group of muscles that is covered in mucosa, a moist pink tissue and papillae, which are the small bumps that are covered in taste buds. Each taste bud is a collection of cells that connect to nerves that send taste signals to the brain, and while the four types of taste are sweet, sour, bitter, and salty, those tastes can be detected at every part of the tongue.
The tongue itself is attached by additional mucosa and tough tissue. In the front of the mouth, the tongue is held by the frenum, and in the back, it’s attached into the hyoid bone.
Common Issues in the Mouth and Tongue
Now that you know what a healthy tongue is supposed to look like, when there’s something wrong, like pain or discoloration, you may be inclined to call your doctor or dentist immediately. We understand, especially when it’s hard to eat or talk, but if you’re not sure when to worry or when to wait it out, these are the common tongue problems that often go away with at-home care.
If your tongue has raised, red spots that may have a whitish border around them, this is a harmless condition called geographic tongue. Often, the spots go away on their own and sometimes the bumps shift locations. It’s typically painless and harmless.
Black, “Hairy” Tongue
The papillae grow over time, and while brushing regularly and eating tends to wear the papillae down, sometimes they continue to grow a bit longer. When this happens, bacteria adheres to the papillae making the tongue look dark brown or black and the longer papillae look like hairs.
This isn’t common and not serious, and it’s most commonly found in people who don’t have good dental health habits. However, people with diabetes or who are taking antibiotics may experience this condition. It’s generally recommended to use a tongue scraper and brush regularly to clean the surface.
These mouth ulcers are painful and unpleasant, but they are nothing to worry about. This common problem goes away on its own in around a week, and during this time they aren’t contagious. Research does point to stress being a cause, if you find yourself getting them regularly.
Tongue Problems That Require a Dentist or Doctor
If you experience signs of the following conditions, it may be a more serious problem that requires the attention of your family dentist or doctor.
Oral thrush is a yeast infection in the lining of the mouth that produces raise white patches on the mouth and tongue. Most commonly seen in babies, the elderly, and people who are immune compromised, this is a treatable condition that can go away in a few days with a mild antifungal medication.
Red or “Strawberry” Tongue
A red, strawberry tongue could be a sign of a folic acid deficiency, but in children, it could also be a sign of scarlet fever or Kawasaki disease. Both are serious and require medical attention immediately.
Atrophic glossitis is a condition in which the tongue loses bumps from the papillae, becoming smooth in texture. This is sometimes caused by a B vitamin deficiency or anemia.
Often starting as a white patch, growth, or ulcer on the tongue that grows steadily, oral cancer is a serious condition that is most often seen in people who smoke or drink alcohol in larger quantities.
Schedule a Checkup with Our Cary Family Dentist
If you have oral health concerns or are simply in need of a checkup, we can help. To schedule an appointment, give our dentist office in Cary a call at (919) 467-2203 or reach out to our Holly Springs dentist office at (919) 600-6262 and you can also use a contact form to request an appointment.