Tongue Awareness – What’s Your Tongue Trying To Tell You?

woman sticking out her tongue to examine it

You’re probably aware of your teeth and gums and how their appearance affects your smile, but what about your tongue? When did you last stare into a mirror and poke it out? If it’s been a while, then now’s as good a time to take a really good look at its appearance. 

What do we mean by tongue awareness, and why does it matter?

Medical professionals regard the tongue as a window into our overall and oral health. Simply put, the tongue is an indicator of underlying health factors. 

One prime example is oral cancer. Did you know that mouth cancer is on the rise in the UK? It’s the tenth most common cancer among men and the fifteenth in women. Yet, a quick tongue examination is one of the best ways to routinely detect mouth cancer. In essence, it’s essential to highlight any changes in the tongue’s appearance early.

So, what should a healthy tongue look like?

A healthy tongue is pink and covered in tiny nodules or papillae, making it slightly rough. It can be any shade of pink (but not red), and the nodules should cover most of the tongue’s top surface and underside, although these may be harder to spot. Don’t worry about any swellings at the back of the tongue – these are your tastebuds. 

Changes to your tongue’s appearance may indicate a health issue needing further exploration, so tongue awareness is essential for everyone. 

Now you know what a healthy tongue should look like, let’s look at common changes that happen to the tongue and what they may imply.

A white/yellow coating 

A build-up of cells on the tongue’s surface causes a white coating due to food debris or irritation. It’s a common occurrence in people, although in babies, it’s due to a build-up of milk during breastfeeding. 

Fortunately, this change in the tongue’s appearance is more of an oral hygiene than a health issue and doesn’t require any treatment. If you have a white coating, scrub your tongue whenever you clean your teeth. A tongue scraper could also be an excellent investment to eliminate bad breath caused by bacteria on the back of the tongue. 

A yellow coating on the tongue occurs for the same reason, but the yellowish hue is attributed to drinking tea or coffee or nicotine from cigarettes in those who smoke. 

White patches 

White patches across the tongue’s surface or elsewhere in the mouth are a sign of oral thrush caused by an organism known as candida (yeast) and are generally harmless. The condition mainly occurs in babies and the elderly, particularly denture wearers or those with a weakened immune system. Oral thrush can also occur after taking antibiotics, as these can kill the healthy bacteria in the mouth, enabling yeast to thrive. 

Your GP or dentist can prescribe anti-thrush medication as a mouth gel, usually taken for at least seven days. An alternative remedy is to eat probiotic natural yoghurt. While it doesn’t kill candida, it halts its growth and helps restore the balance of good to harmful bacteria in the mouth.

Isolated white patches on the tongue are more concerning, especially if your tongue is otherwise pink and healthy. A white patch can result from something as simple as the tongue rubbing against a tooth filling or tooth, but there is a chance it may be oral cancer. A GP or dentist should examine any localised white or red patch on the tongue that has been there longer than two or three weeks.

Yellow patches

Yellow patches on the tongue can indicate an underlying health condition, including gastritis, where the stomach becomes infected, often due to infection. People suffering from gastritis tend to produce less saliva, meaning dead cells are cleared away less frequently from the tongue’s surface, eventually resulting in discolouration.


A tongue ulcer typically results from trauma, such as accidentally biting down on the tongue. There isn’t a treatment option, per se, and the ulcer should clear on its own accord in a week or so. However, you could try rinsing your mouth frequently with diluted warm saltwater to hurry it along. 

Some teens or young people are prone to developing four or five tongue ulcers at any time, which can be extremely painful. This being the case, it’s worth visiting the dentist, who can prescribe a topical steroid mouth rinse, gel or cream, 

Regularly getting ulcers can also be a sign of stress, and mental stress can cause a person to bite their cheeks or tongue more often as they clench their teeth. This action can lead to indentations on the top or side of the tongue as it’s repeatedly pressed against clenched teeth. 

A GP or dentist should check out any ulcers hanging around for over two to three weeks. 

Localised swelling 

Localised swelling occurs when a person accidentally bites their tongue. Unfortunately, there’s little you can do except wait it out. The swelling should subside within 48 hours. 

A lumpy pink swelling could be tissue growth (a pulp) that usually isn’t harmful and can be removed by a dentist. 

The whole tongue is swollen

It’s relatively unusual for the whole of the tongue to be swollen. It could be you have an allergy, but certain medications, such as pills for blood pressure, can also cause swelling.

It may be your body lacks iron (anaemia) or Vitamin B12, both of which play an essential role in producing red blood cells that transport oxygen to various organs in the body. 

Dentists refer to the condition as a ‘beefy tongue.’ If you experience a swollen tongue or suspect you may have an allergy, contact your GP or call 111.

What’s your tongue trying to tell you?

We recommend checking the tongue daily for any signs of discolouration, lumps, sores or pain. Any deviations should be monitored and evaluated by a medical professional if they don’t resolve themselves within two to three weeks. 

Want to know how healthy your tongue is? Talk to the Foxbury Dental Team. Carmen will give you a thorough examination as part of a dental check-up, so book an appointment today; you’re in good hands.

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