Every day, your tongue sends you delightful information like how ice cream tastes, or what it’s like to be kissed. But this tiny muscle also can give clues about how the rest of your body is doing.
“Your mouth and, in particular, your tongue is a window to your body's health,” says David Opperman, MD an otolaryngologist, or ear, nose, and throat doctor at Presbyterian/St. Luke's Medical Center in Denver, Colorado.
Checking your tongue should be a daily habit. Here are six things your tongue could reveal about your health.
1. You’re a Teenager With Stress and Raging Hormones
It’s possible to get a canker sore, or aphthous ulcer, at any age, but teenagers get them most often. Canker sores typically happen a few times a year between ages 10 and 20 for people who are prone to them.
We don't have a clear understanding of what causes these small, white, or yellow ulcers, says Opperman. But they can be brought on by stress, acidic foods, and hormone changes.
A canker sore usually gets better on its own after about six to 10 days, but you can help it heal by:
- Avoiding irritating, spicy foods
- Keeping your mouth clean so bacteria doesn’t get into the wound
- Using over-the-counter mouthwashes to help numb or soothe painful spots
2. You’re Going Through Menopause
Menopause can change your body in some unexpected ways. On top of hot flashes and night sweats, some women also develop a tongue condition called menopausal glossitis.
Low estrogen levels during menopause can alter the nerve endings in your taste buds and make it harder for your body to create saliva. Those changes may lead to a burning feeling on your tongue or cause foods to taste bitter or metallic.
This issue is usually managed by your hormone replacement doctor. It can be temporary in some cases and may go away after adjusting your hormone replacement therapy, says Opperman.
3. Your Seasonal Allergies Are Acting Up
Seasonal allergies may have your doctor upping your steroid inhaler dose these days. But failing to use your inhaler properly puts you at risk for a type of tongue infection that comes from the Candida fungus, warns Opperman.
The infection, called oral thrush, shows up as a white film on top of red patches on your tongue. Small amounts of Candida live on everyone’s tongue, but the fungus can become overgrown if:
- Your immune system is weak or you have diabetes
- You wear dentures
- You’re taking antibiotics or steroids
“That's why you're advised to rinse your mouth out after using a steroid inhaler,” says Opperman. Just be sure to spit out the water after rinsing your mouth.
4. You Should Invest in a Tongue Brush
Believe it or not, patches of “hair” can actually grow on your tongue. Hairy tongue looks like a black discoloration of the tongue with hair-like structures on it, explains Opperman.
It happens when keratin, the same protein that makes head and body hair, builds up on your tongue. See your doctor right away if you have hairy tongue because it has a number of different causes — including poor oral hygiene, smoking, and antibiotic use — and some are more serious than others. Your doctor may be able to offer a quick fix: a tongue brush or scraper can usually help get rid of the unwanted locks.
5. You’re Low On Vitamin B12
A diet low in vitamin B12 can make your tongue feel sore and look smooth or beefy red in color, says Opperman. Your doctor may check your blood level of B12 if you have a beefy red tongue because it could signal a more serious condition. Low levels of B12 can cause a type of anemia, which makes it harder for your blood to carry oxygen throughout your body. Anemia can lead to:
- Fatigue, pale skin
- Chest pain
B12 is mainly found in animal products like beef, milk, and cheese. Since fruits and vegetables generally have no B12, vegetarians are more likely to have low B12 levels. Vegetarians can get more B12 by eating fortified foods like cereal, tofu or soymilk.
6. If a Mouth Sore sticks Around…
It’s well known that tobacco puts you at risk for mouth cancer, along with other illnesses like lung cancer and heart disease. But, though research is preliminary, some experts are concerned that vaping devices can increase your risk of mouth cancer too.
Related: Does Vaping Cause Cancer?
If you use any of these products and you have a sore on the tongue that doesn’t heal for two weeks, take it very seriously: get in to see an ear, nose, and throat doctor because something more serious could be going on, warns Opperman.
Mouth cancer sores usually look like red or white patches and may feel velvety. But don’t try to diagnose yourself; visit an ENT for any suspicious mouth sores lasting longer than two weeks.