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6 Common Tongue Problems: Causes and Symptoms

Smith is a content writer in Orlando, Florida. She researches and writes about health, green living, and other topics.

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

  1. Painful, sore tongue
  2. Strawberry tongue
  3. White tongue
  4. Yellow tongue
  5. Black, hairy tongue
  6. Geographic tongue
Diagram of human tongue anatomy—including various types of papillae and the taste bud.

Diagram of human tongue anatomy—including various types of papillae and the taste bud.

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.

An image of a healthy human tongue.

An image of a healthy human tongue.

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.
  • Stress
    • 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.

Toxic shock syndrome and strawberry tongue.

Toxic shock syndrome and strawberry tongue.

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.
White tongue caused by oral lichen planus.

White tongue caused by oral lichen planus.

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

  • Leukoplakia
    • 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.
  • Candidiasis
    • 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).

Black hairy tongue caused by tobacco use.

Black hairy tongue caused by tobacco use.

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.

An image of a geographic tongue.

An image of a geographic tongue.

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.

Your Turn

What does your tongue say about your health? Leave a comment below and join the conversation.

Medical Disclaimer

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.

References

  • 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

Question: 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?

Answer: 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.

Question: I wear dentures, have sinus problems, and wake up every morning with a white tongue and bad breath. What am I experiencing?

Answer: 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.

© 2012 Annette Smith

Comments

Annette Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on June 19, 2019:

Hi, Priscilla! Thank you for your comment. A dental crown can irritate the tongue, but I don't know to what extent. This sounds like a question for the dentist. If you learn anything more about your cousin's condition, please let us know.

Priscilla mccabe on June 18, 2019:

My cousin had a tooth pulled and a crown put in on the other side. Now six months later he has lost control of his tongue and has trouble talking can this be related

Annette Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on February 10, 2019:

Hi, Leida! It’s good to hear that your dentist isn’t worried about the spot on your tongue. And I’m glad it doesn’t hurt - sore tongues can be painful! Thanks for your comment, and prayers for your good health. Blessings, Annette

Leida on February 09, 2019:

I went to my dentist for a cleaning. He noticed a red spot on the side of my tongue. He didnt think it was anything to worry about, but said if it doesnt go away to come back and see him. It isnt sore at all. Of course now im all worries.

Annette Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on August 08, 2018:

You're welcome, Jenny. Thank you for your comment. I'm glad the information was useful to you.

Jenny on August 08, 2018:

Very useful - thanks

Annette Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on February 23, 2018:

Thank you, Saniya. Glad you liked it!

Saniya Aamir from Karachi on February 23, 2018:

Nice article!

Annette Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on May 01, 2016:

Hi, Terrie. Thank you for reading my article and sharing your experience with us. Wow! I can't imagine the pain you're suffering from those tongue irritations. I hope one of the doctors will diagnose the problem soon. Does anyone have any thoughts or suggestions for Terrie?

Terrie Hamilton on April 30, 2016:

I believe I have burning mouth/tongue disorder and have been to several doctors with no results. My tongue also looks like the grand canyon with many and deep crevices. Occasionally I get holes in the sides of my mouth that start small but increase in size and are quite painful. I cannot tolerate acidity or spicy foods because my mouth feels like it's on fire. Any help would be appreciated.

Annette Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on October 28, 2013:

Hello, Mary. Black hairy tongue is caused by bacteria or fungi in the mouth. It is often seen in people who use tobacco products, or those with bad oral hygiene. A doctor or dentist can identify tongue concerns and recommend treatment. Thanks for reading my article!

Mary-19 on October 27, 2013:

my relative is 4 n half year old girl,she has a black bump about 1/2 cm in middle of her tongue which was never seen before( dont know how long its been there)

What could be the reason? Is ot "black hairy tongue"symptom?

In "black hairy tongue" problem are hairs seen or its just a bump ?

Annette Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on August 08, 2013:

Greetings, olta hadushaj. I am sorry to hear about your painful sore tongue. Many things can cause tongue pain, and your doctor or dentist can recommend a helpful treatment. Feel better soon!

olta hadushaj on August 08, 2013:

i have the same problem with the tongue of photo of Painful Sore Tongue, what should i do to recover?

Annette Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on May 24, 2013:

Hello, Alex. From what I've read and heard, black hairy tongue is a fairly common tongue problem. It seems to be more common in men, especially those who use tobacco, drink a lot of coffee, or practice poor oral hygiene.

Alex Munkachy from Honolulu, Hawaii on May 24, 2013:

Harmless perhaps, but how common is a black, hairy tongue really?

Annette Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on May 17, 2013:

Thank you for stopping by, Kevin. I'm glad you learned some new terms! I think black hairy tongue is more common in people who dip snuff. Not long ago, it was depicted in a television commercial about the dangers of smokeless tobacco.

Annette Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on May 17, 2013:

Hello, mikielikie. Thanks for the compliment! I'm glad you enjoyed the hub.

Kevin Peter from Global Citizen on May 17, 2013:

Strawberry tongue and black hairy tongue are all new words for me. The pictures included in the hub helps in understanding the real meaning of these words. I dont think that these problems are common. But the detailed explanation you have provided for each type is very interesting. Great hub!

mikielikie from Texas on May 17, 2013:

Great hub!! I have a geographic tongue.

Annette Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on April 25, 2013:

@smallbizloandepot: Thank you for reading "6 Common Tongue Problems." I appreciate the comment!

smallbizloandepot from Atlanta, GA on April 25, 2013:

great info. i just learned something new reading this.

Annette Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on March 20, 2013:

Hello, Frank. Thank you for reading my oral health article. I pray that your biopsy results are good. Blessings to you!

Annette Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on March 20, 2013:

Today is World Oral Health Day. Celebrate by taking care of your teeth, gums, mouth, and tongue!

Frank Slovenec from San Francisco, CA on March 20, 2013:

Good article just had the second biopsy on my tongue ...looking forward to the results...thanks

Annette Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on March 18, 2013:

Thank you for reading my article, Sherrell. A sore, painful tongue is no fun! I hope your problem is resolved soon.

sherrell l on March 18, 2013:

My togue Stay sour

Annette Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on January 24, 2013:

Hello, Sarah. Thank you for sharing your story with us. Your tip about baking soda toothpaste is a good one, and I'm glad to hear that it cleared up your problem with chronic thrush. Sometimes the simple solutions really are the best ones!

SaritaJBonita on January 24, 2013:

I suffered from chronic thrush for quite awhile due to long-term antibiotic use. I got tired of using the swish and swallow medicine four times a day, and was finally referred to an ear nose and throat specialist.

His advice was simple. Switch to a baking soda toothpaste. When you think you're getting a bit of thrush, make a paste with a few spoonfuls of baking soda and water, and swish it around for awhile, then spit it out.

Apparently the baking soda changes the pH of your mouth, because yeast thrives in an acidic environment. The baking soda "starves" the yeast from nutrients and the thrush cannot flourish.

Haven't had a case of thrush since then!

Annette Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on December 27, 2012:

Thank you, Chaz. I appreciate your read, comment and the votes up!

iguidenetwork from Austin, TX on December 27, 2012:

That black hairy tongue looks quite scary! But I'm glad that those all ailments can be treated easily. Thanks for posting. Voted up, useful and interesting.

Annette Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on December 26, 2012:

It's good to meet you, Oscarlites. Thank you for stopping by, and for giving my hub a thumbs up. I hope your Christmas was blessed!

Oscar Jones from Monroeville, Alabama on December 26, 2012:

Hmm.. ok I'm taking notes here. but yes, its important to take care of your tongue and know what's going on in there! Great hub!

Annette Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on June 07, 2012:

Hello, Chris! This IS an interesting subject, isn't it? Thanks for stopping by and sharing a word. I'll be sure to check out your hub on dental hygiene.

Chris Hugh on June 05, 2012:

Wow, I never knew tongues could be so interesting. I used to have geographic tongue, but now that I use an Orabrush, it's gone. I wrote a whole Hub on dental hygiene.

Black hair tongue is strangely compelling. I almost wish I had it so that I could cure it with my Orabrush. I am sort of a strange.

Annette Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on May 05, 2012:

You're welcome, Penlady. Thank you for reading my article on common tongue problems and sharing the link on Twitter. You're the best!

penlady from Sacramento, CA on May 05, 2012:

Wow! This is very informative, especially the information on black tongue. So much can go on with the body.

Thanks for this hub!

Annette Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on May 02, 2012:

Hello, Francesca27. What a pleasure to meet you! Thank you for reading my article on common tongue problems, and for leaving a comment too.

Francesca27 from Hub Page on May 02, 2012:

What great information you've shared with us. Thank you so much for writing this hub.