6 Common Tongue Problems: Causes and Symptoms
Is Your Tongue Healthy?
Is your tongue sore, painful, or swollen? Has it recently changed in size, color, or appearance? Does the condition of your tongue cause frustration and discomfort?
A painful or sore tongue can be common. A minor infection or injury, such as biting your tongue, is the most likely cause. Most tongue irritations are harmless and resolve on their own. In some cases, however, a tongue problem may indicate a serious medical condition, such as a vitamin deficiency, oral cancer, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
For this reason, it is always a good idea to see a doctor or dentist if your painful sore tongue is an ongoing problem. In this article, we will discuss six tongue conditions and their likely causes.
6 Common Tongue Problems
- Painful, sore tongue
- Strawberry tongue
- White tongue
- Yellow tongue
- Black, hairy tongue
- Geographic tongue
Human Tongue Anatomy
You may think your tongue is a single muscle. In fact, it is often called "the strongest muscle in the body." But your tongue is actually a group of muscles that allow you to taste, chew, and swallow food. These muscles also help you form words so you can talk.
Your tongue contains a moist tissue lining called a mucous membrane. Underneath, small nodules or papillae cover the upper surface. Your taste buds—which number about 9,000—are scattered between the papillae.
A healthy tongue is smooth, moist, and pink. Many things can change its appearance and function. A discolored or sore tongue may indicate a problem with the tongue itself, or it may signal a health problem elsewhere.
1. Painful and Sore Tongue
Do you have a painful, sore tongue? Trauma from biting your tongue and scalding from hot foods or beverages are the most likely causes.
Possible Causes of a Painful or Sore Tongue:
- Habitual teeth grinding
- Excessive smoking
- Inflamed taste buds
- Inflammation can cause tiny, painful bumps to form along the length of your tongue.
- This commonly results in canker sores, and although the cause of mouth ulcers is still unclear, stress is believed to be a contributing factor.
- Burning tongue syndrome (burning mouth syndrome)
- Burning tongue syndrome is a common menopause symptom. The painful, burning sensations can affect the tongue, gums, lips, and other parts of the mouth.
- Chronic health conditions
- Anemia, diabetes, and even oral cancer can lead to persistent, painful bumps or sores on the tongue and in the mouth. Early detection is important for successful treatment.
Ask your doctor or dentist for an oral cancer screening if you notice any of the early warning signs, especially when the problems are persistent.
2. Strawberry Tongue
A strawberry tongue is named for its appearance: large taste buds dot the surface of the tongue. Many things can turn a healthy, pink tongue into a bright, red one that resembles a strawberry.
Possible Causes of Strawberry Tongue
- Vitamin deficiency
- This is the most common cause of strawberry tongue. Your tongue may look red if your body is not getting enough vitamin B9 (folic acid), vitamin B12 (cobalamin), or other B complex vitamins. These nutrients help your body convert carbohydrates into energy.
- Kawasaki syndrome
- This is a rare childhood disease that affects the blood vessels, causes red skin rashes and a strawberry tongue. While the symptoms may scare parents, they can be treated easily with medications.
- Scarlet fever
- Once a much-feared childhood illness resulting from a streptococcal infection, it also produces a strawberry tongue. The illness is uncommon today, and antibiotics can treat the fever and reduce the symptoms.
3. White Tongue
Is your tongue covered with white spots or a white coating? Many things can cause a white tongue, from yeast infections to medications to leukoplakia.
Possible Causes of White Tongue
- Common in tobacco users, leukoplakia causes excessive cell growth on the tongue, resulting in white patches. While it is not dangerous on its own, leukoplakia can be a precursor to oral cancer.
- Also called oral thrush, candidiasis is a yeast infection that results in white tongue patches with a "cottage cheese" consistency. Oral thrush is most common in babies and elderly adults. It may also affect people with diabetes, asthma, or lung disease.
- Oral lichen planus
- Although the exact causes are unclear, tobacco use and poor dental hygiene contribute to the development of raised, lace-like white lines along the tongue.
Maintain Good Oral Hygiene
Regularly rinsing, flossing, and brushing your teeth, gums, and tongue keep your mouth healthy—not to mention refreshing.
4. Yellow Tongue
Does the surface of your tongue look yellow? A yellow tongue may indicate jaundice, a skin-yellowing condition that points to a gallbladder or liver problem. However, a yellow tongue is usually harmless and temporary.
Changes to papillae on the surface of the tongue cause the yellow color. Enlarged nodes combine with mouth bacteria to produce yellow pigments on the tongue.
Good oral hygiene is the best treatment for a yellow tongue. Without proper care, the condition can develop into a black, hairy tongue (see the next section).
5. Black, Hairy Tongue
Despite its startling appearance, a black, hairy tongue is another harmless condition that involves the papillae.
Papillae grow on your tongue throughout your life. Daily mouth activities usually wear them down and keep them short.
Some tongues, however, have long papillae that normal activities cannot wear down. The overgrown nodes are more likely to harbor bacteria and give the tongue a hairy appearance.
Tobacco products, improper use of antibiotics, and cancer drugs contribute to a black, hairy tongue. Good oral hygiene usually resolves the problem without the need for medical treatment.
6. Geographic Tongue
Is your tongue missing papillae? Does it have smooth, red patches with raised borders? You may have geographic tongue.
Geographic tongue is named because of the map-like appearance that forms. As one raised patch heals, the problem moves to a different part of the tongue. This causes your tongue's "landscape" to change frequently.
A geographic tongue may be sensitive to certain substances, but the condition is harmless. It is not linked to infection or cancer.
The cause of geographic tongue is unclear, but genetics may play a role in its development. The condition may persist for months or even years, but eventually, it will resolve on its own.
What does your tongue say about your health? Leave a comment below and join the conversation.
The information presented in this article is not intended as medical advice, nor is it a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment by a qualified medical professional.
- National Institutes of Health. (February 20, 2012). Tongue Disorders. National Library of Medicine / Medline Plus. Retrieved April 30, 2012.
- UMMC. (2012). Tongue Problems Overview. University of Maryland Medical Center. Retrieved April 27, 2012.
- Wyatt, Alfred D. Jr. (March 7, 2011). Tongue Problem Basics. WebMD Medical Reference. Retrieved April 27, 2012.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Questions & Answers
I wear dentures, have sinus problems, and wake up every morning with a white tongue and bad breath. What am I experiencing?
I am not a health care professional, but my first thought is dry mouth. According to the Mayo Clinic, white tongue is a coating of bacteria, debris, and dead cells. While the appearance may alarm you, the condition is usually harmless and temporary. Dry mouth and mouth breathing are common causes of a white tongue and bad breath. If you're worried it may be something else, your doctor can make an accurate diagnosis.
I have large luminescent bumps, with a very dark brown spot on the tongue. Some of the bumps have turned almost black. I'm diabetic, have gastric problems, and smoke. Do I have oral cancer?
I am sorry you are experiencing these tongue problems. I am not a health care professional, so I cannot provide an answer for you. Please see a physician for an accurate diagnosis and treatment options.
© 2012 Annette R. Smith