Tongue Problems

Medical Author:
Medical Editor:

Tongue basics

The tongue is a mobile organ that is made up of muscles and attached to the floor of the mouth. The top of the tongue is covered with small bumps called papillae. The majority of our tastes 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 can be 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/stick 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/swelling, abnormalities of the surface, growths (bumps), pain, taste concerns, and difficulty with movement.

What causes tongue problems?

A variety of things cause tongue problems, ranging from benign to serious.

What are the treatments for tongue problems?

The treatment for tongue problems depends on the underlying cause of the issue.

White tongue

Color changes related to the tongue can range from a benign concern to one that requires medical attention. Often, a white tongue could be caused by a removable coating of food debris or bacterial plaque. The following are some common causes of white tongue -- a fungal infection referred to as oral thrush, leukoplakia, oral lichen planus, hairy leukoplakia, and linea alba.

Oral thrush (or candidiasis) is a caused by an overgrowth of yeast in the mouth. The white patches can be scraped off to expose a red surface on the tongue. Illnesses, medications, stress, and antibiotic treatment can cause oral thrush by throwing off the balance of microorganisms in the mouth. Lozenges, tablets, or liquid antifungals are used for treatment.

Leukoplakia is characterized by white patches that cannot be scraped off and may be related to longer-term irritation in the mouth although the cause is not always known. Tobacco use is the most common factor that contributes to leukoplakia. The condition may resolve after smoking cessation. Sometimes the patches are on the sides of the tongue and could be related to constant rubbing next to the lower teeth. Although usually benign, leukoplakia can be the precursor to oral cancer. The risk of cancer increases with age of the individual, size of the lesion, and number of lesions present. A biopsy may be recommended after clinical evaluation by the doctor. A biopsy is a procedure that takes a sample of cells or tissue for microscopic evaluation. Sometimes, the area can be monitored for changes by the doctor. Monitoring is usually performed during routine dental visits or during visits with an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist.

Oral lichen planus on the tongue is a chronic inflammatory condition caused by an autoimmune response. It is characterized by a white lace-like pattern called reticular lichen planus. (There is an erosive form that presents as shallow ulcerations and can be treated with topical steroids.) Regular monitoring of this condition is recommended for any changes, although rare, that could lead to oral cancer. A biopsy may be recommended.

Hairy leukoplakia is a white patch on the side of the tongue that appears hairy or rough. This condition is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus and is usually related to immunocompromised individuals. HIV testing should be considered if hairy leukoplakia presents without a known immunocompromising condition. Antiviral medications such as acyclovir may be used. Recurrence of hairy leukoplakia is common.

Linea alba is a benign condition that is characterized by a thin white line at the lateral borders of the tongue. It is caused by the thickening of the epithelium due to trauma or irritation from chewing. No treatment is necessary.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 8/1/2013

Patient Comments

Viewers share their comments

Tongue Problems - Describe Your Problems Question: Please describe your tongue problems.
Tongue Problems - Treatments Question: What treatment did you receive for your tongue problem?
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?
Tongue Problems - Oral Cancer Question: Have you been diagnosed with oral cancer on your tongue? How are you coping?
Tongue Problems - Leukoplakia Question: Do you have leukoplakia? How did you get rid of it?

Hairy Tongue Symptoms

Hairy tongue, medically known as lingua villosa, is generally a harmless condition that alters the appearance of the tongue, making it appear discolored and furry.


STAY INFORMED

Get the Latest health and medical information delivered direct to your inbox!