There’s no need to wait until you’re in a dentist’s chair to open wide. Regularly inspecting your tongue in a mirror can help you detect issues in your mouth—and other parts of your body—before they become more serious. Stick it out and give yourself a quick health check.
The sign: Swollen grey/white balloon under your tongue.
What it means: You could have a clogged salivary gland. When this occurs, something is blocking the tiny ducts so they can’t drain saliva, causing swelling, fluid build-up, and pain. One of the most common causes of a clogged duct is a salivary stone. “It’s a calcium deposit similar to a kidney stone,” says Mark Woff, D.D.S, chair of cariology and comprehensive care at New York University College of Dentistry. If it doesn’t go away on its own within a few days, make an appointment with your dentist—the deposit may need to be surgically removed.
The sign: Sores with a halo around them.
What it means: A healthy tongue is pink and relatively smooth with no lumps or bumps. If you notice any red or whitish patches, a spot with a red ring around it, white areas with a lace-like pattern, or an unhealing sore, alert your doctor or dentist—it could signal cancer. While rates of other types of cancer are on the decline, the incidence of oral cancer has increased approximately 25 percent over the past decade, possibly due to the rise in human papilloma virus (HPV), a risk factor for the disease.
The sign: Thick red tongue.
What it means: Check your diet—you could have a vitamin deficiency. Your tongue is one of the first places a vitamin B12 deficiency appears. The vitamin is essential for creating healthy red blood cells, and subpar levels can lead to anemia. With that disease, your tongue may feel sore and is sometimes said to appear “beefy.” If you eat a typical U.S. diet, you’re probably getting enough vitamin B12 since it’s mostly found in meat, poultry, milk, fish, and eggs. However, if you’re a vegetarian or vegan or have a digestive disorder such as celiac disease or Crohn’s disease, you may not be getting enough. Taking a multivitamin and eating fortified foods like cereal can help.
The sign: Black, hairy-looking tongue.
What it means: Did you recently take antibiotics? A course of the drugs can disrupt the normal bacteria in your yapper, causing an overgrowth that builds up on tiny round projections on your tongue called papillae. Instead of sloughing off like they normally do, the papillae can grow and give your tongue a hairy appearance. The good news: For the most part, it’s harmless and should go away on its own. However, the bacteria can cause bad breath and affect your ability to taste. “Brush your tongue really well with a toothbrush and toothpaste each day and you’ll help the normal flora return,” Dr. Wolff says.
The sign: Swelling.
What it means: Of all the symptoms to watch for, this requires the most immediate attention, since you could be having an allergic reaction. “It isn’t actually so much swelling of the tongue that occurs, but swelling of the airway behind the tongue that pushes the tongue forward, making it appear larger,” Dr. Wolff says. Without quick treatment, swelling in your mouth can block your airway and become life-threatening, Dr. Wolff adds. Seek medical attention right away.
The sign: Dry, white glossy tongue.
What it means: Dry mouth, or xerostomia, occurs when the mouth doesn’t produce enough saliva. This can cause uncomfortable dryness on the tongue and affect the balance of bacteria, which may cause a change in your tongue’s color and appearance. When left untreated, dry mouth can increase your risk of gum disease and tooth decay—normally, saliva deposits minerals that help keep your teeth healthy—and it may also increase your risk of oral infections. Drinking plenty of water and using a humidifier if you live in a dry environment can help. If dry mouth is a chronic problem, medications you take for allergies, high blood pressure, asthma, and other conditions may be to blame. Talk to your doc about switching prescriptions. You can also treat dry mouth with over-the-counter mouth rinses, which work like an artificial saliva substitute.