Tongue Problems

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Tongue basics

The tongue is a mobile group of muscles that is attached to the floor of the mouth. The top of the tongue is covered with small bumps called papillae. The majority of our taste buds sit on these papillae.

The tongue is used for tasting, swallowing, and chewing food. The tongue is also used to form words for speaking. A tongue that is pink and moist with a thin white coating on the surface is considered healthy. As many of us have experienced, a tongue injury (such as when we accidentally bite our tongue) can be quite bothersome since the tongue is such an instrumental part of our daily lives through eating and speaking. Though very few people know it, the tongue is actually a very good measure of the well-being of the body. This is why your doctor may use the tongue depressor to look in your mouth and tongue during an examination.

What are common tongue problems?

Some common problems associated with the tongue include discoloration, increased size, abnormalities of the surface, growths (bumps), pain, taste concerns, and difficulty with movement.

What causes tongue problems?

There are a variety of causes of tongue problems, ranging from harmless to serious. Individuals can be born with a tongue condition that is harmless. A more serious condition such as tongue cancer can be related to risk factors such as smoking and drinking alcohol. Additionally, a tongue problem may be a result of an underlying medical condition.

What are the risk factors for tongue problems?

Depending on the tongue problem, risk factors may include tobacco use, drinking alcohol, poor oral hygiene, viral infections, a weak immune system, and even stress.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 10/21/2014

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Tongue Problems - Infants and Children Question: What kind of tongue problem does your infant or young child suffer from?
Tongue Problems - Hairy Tongue Question: Were you diagnosed with hairy tongue? What was the cause?
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White Tongue Symptoms and Signs

Whitening of the tongue can occur when there is a buildup or coating of bacteria and debris on the surface of the tongue due to:

  • mild dehydration,
  • illness (when there is less use of the tongue for talking or eating), or
  • dryness of the mouth.

A whitening of the top layer of the tongue or the presence of white spots or patches on the tongue can also be seen with infection, irritation, or chronic inflammation of the surface of the tongue. Certain oral infections, notably Candida yeast infections (known as oral thrush), are characterized by a white tongue.