How To Check Your Tongue for Common Problems
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How To Check Your Tongue for Common Problems

When you go to the dentist, they will take a close look at your tongue to make sure it’s healthy and doesn’t have any obvious problems. For the health of your tongue, having a dentist do this is one of the best things you can do. If you’re worried about your tongue, you can also do regular checks on yourself and catch problems early.

Checking Tongue Health

Here are some things to look for when examining your tongue:

Scalloped borders

The condition itself is usually not serious, but the underlying causes of scalloped borders may be. The scalloped or wavy pattern is caused by your tongue pressing up against the adjacent teeth. If you notice it mostly in the morning, it could be a clue that you are clenching your teeth together overnight. This can also happen if your tongue is swollen and larger than normal. If you suspect this is the case, a visit to your doctor may be needed to figure out the cause of the swelling.

Geographic tongue

Geographic tongue is an inflammatory condition of the tongue with no known cause. It appears as bald patches on the tongue which are reddish and may have a white border. These patches tend to come and go and move around the tongue, hence the name geographic. Usually, this condition isn’t painful, although in some cases it can have a burning sensation. Usually, no treatment is necessary.

White coating

This can be the result of poor tongue hygiene which leads to an accumulation of bacteria. Brushing or scraping your tongue daily can prevent and treat this. A white coating on the tongue could also indicate an oral yeast infection/candidiasis. If it is candidiasis, the white areas cannot be cleaned or wiped off. This condition is usually uncomfortable and can be brought on by certain medications or puffers. Those who are immunocompromised are at particular risk of this. It can be treated with an anti-fungal medication.

Red, smooth and painful tongue

The tongue may have a shiny appearance and lack visible papillae. Papillae are the finger-like projections on your tongue that contain your taste buds and give your tongue its rough texture. This may be related to a nutritional deficiency, usually in iron, folic acid or B12 (anemia). This condition will resolve once the deficiency is corrected. A similar condition may occur with xerostomia or very dry mouth.

Oral cancer

The only way to have a definitive cancer diagnosis is with a biopsy. Some things to watch for are color changes, white or red patches on or under the tongue that do not heal, lumps or swelling, pain or changes in sensation, difficulty moving the tongue or difficulty swallowing.

Hairy tongue

This happens when the papillae become longer and more keratinized, giving the tongue a “hairy” appearance. The papillae may be white, or in some cases brown or black. Certain bacteria can cause the darker color, as well as products like tobacco and coffee, can stain the tongue. Prolonged use of hydrogen peroxide as a mouth rinse can also cause this. Treatment is the gentle brushing of the tongue with a wet toothbrush and no toothpaste.


When checking your tongue, make sure you look under it and at the back and sides. Make sure your tongue is moist, has the full range of movement and isn’t sore. If you see any suspicious lesions, especially if they do not heal or go away within two weeks, see your medical or dental professional.

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