Listen to what your tongue has to say about your health.
Have you ever eaten brightly colored candy or ice cream and stuck your tongue out, marveling at the interesting color it’s turned? Most of us have at least a few times. It’s simply fun, especially if there’s a little one around to amuse with the display! Without the help of colorful foods, however, it’s well-known that tongues only come in one color: pink. Right?
In theory, the answer is yes. But tongues can take on a surprising array of colors without the help of outside dyes. When they do, they’re usually trying to tell you something about your health. If you know how to interpret its colorful way of communicating with you, your tongue actually has a lot to say about your oral and overall health. Your tongue’s color can even provide doctors with a clue in the diagnosis of a medical condition. To help ensure you can understand what your tongue is telling you, we’ve put together a guide of the different colors it can turn naturally and what each means.
While the natural shade of everyone’s tongue varies a little bit, the standard, healthy color for a tongue is pink. It should be covered in small bumps called papillae, which help you taste your food. It’s natural for your tongue to accumulate a thin, white-ish film of plaque on its surface over time, but this should brush off when you brush your teeth and tongue.
A white tongue can be an indication of multiple issues, including leukoplakia, a fungal infection like oral thrush, or lichen planus. Leukoplakia tends to appear as thick, white patches on your tongue and is often hard to scrape off. This condition has been linked to tobacco use, but it can also be an indicator of a condition that’s weakening your immune system. When this is the case, the thick, white patch on your tongue may appear almost hairy instead of smooth. If you haven’t already been diagnosed with a condition that weakens your immune system, it can be a good indication that you need to visit a doctor to find the underlying cause.
Oral thrush is characterized by white patches or bumps on your tongue and is simply caused by an overgrowth of yeast in your mouth. Once Dr. Bentz has diagnosed the problem, it’s very easy to treat! While leukoplakia and fungal infections often cause thicker white patches on your tongue, lichen planus is an inflammatory autoimmune condition that creates patches of distinct, almost lacy patterns on your tongue.
Your tongue may be a naturally darker pink or may turn red if it’s been irritated by food that is too hot, spicy, or sour, but when it becomes a distinct or strawberry red color, it could be an indication of several health issues. It can indicate a vitamin B deficiency, an allergic reaction, glossitis, or a rare condition called Kawasaki disease. It’s also a hallmark of scarlet fever, though this illness is rare nowadays. These conditions are each usually accompanied by other symptoms, but your red tongue may be an early indication that you need to get checked out by a doctor. Thankfully, all these conditions are treatable once you’ve gotten a diagnosis. In the case of mild allergic reactions, you may not even need to go to the doctor, but figuring out what you had a reaction to will help you prevent it in the future!
The little ones in your life probably get a kick out of seeing your tongue turn purple from a lollipop; after all, it’s certainly a fun color to show off! But when it turns purple on its own, it can be a sign of serious health concerns. A purple tongue is often an indication of poor blood circulation. This is a symptom of a number of serious conditions, from heart disease and diabetes to arterial issues. Kawasaki disease can also result in a purple tongue. Even if you feel healthy, a purple tongue is a solid indication that you should schedule an appointment with your doctor. It’s always better to be safe!
A black tongue might appear alarming, but there are several potential causes, most of them relatively minor. Poor oral hygiene, drinking dark liquids like coffee, tobacco use, and certain medications can all cause your tongue to turn black or brown-tinged. In these cases, adjusting your habits or medications can usually resolve the problem relatively quickly. For example, brushing your teeth—including your tongue—for two minutes twice a day, flossing at least once a day, and using mouthwash daily can restore your tongue to its normal color if you haven’t been practicing good oral hygiene habits or if you’ve just consumed a dark-colored drink. Your tongue can also turn black because of radiation therapy or, in rare cases, as a symptom of diabetes or HIV.
When your tongue turns orange, it’s usually due to your habits or the foods and drinks you’re consuming. In addition to your diet, poor oral hygiene and certain antibiotics can turn your tongue orange. Finishing the course of your antibiotics or taking up a thorough oral hygiene routine should allow your tongue to return to its normal color. Your tongue may also turn orange due to a dry mouth. Staying hydrated can resolve dry mouth for many people, but chronic dry mouth can also be caused by certain medications or medical conditions. If you have chronic dry mouth, Dr. Bentz can give you suggestions on how to relieve your symptoms, such as using a specialized mouthwash.
Green is certainly a strange color for your tongue to turn, but it can cue you in to a wide range of potential issues with your oral health. The color may simply be the result of poor oral hygiene, or it can indicate issues like bacterial growth, a fungal infection, lichen planus, or leukoplakia. If it’s simply the result of poor oral hygiene, the color should return to normal after you brush your tongue thoroughly and begin practicing a good oral hygiene routine. If it doesn’t go away or if the green color appears lacy or is accompanied by bumps or a thick material on your tongue, the issue likely needs more immediate treatment from a dentist. Thankfully, however, your dentist should be able to identify and treat the issue relatively easily!
A blue tongue has two basic causes: eczema and low levels of oxygen in the blood. Eczema is an easily treatable skin condition, but low levels of oxygen in the blood is significantly more serious. It could indicate lung problems, kidney disease, blood disorders, and more. If your tongue turns blue, it’s wise to seek immediate medical attention.
There are also a number of issues that can turn your tongue yellow, including poor oral hygiene, bacterial growth, eczema, and occasionally diabetes. Most of these issues are minor or easily manageable. Jaundice, which is an indication of liver issues, can also cause your tongue to turn yellow. It will also cause your skin and eyes to take on a yellow tint, however, so a yellow tongue alone is rarely a sign of jaundice. If regular oral hygiene doesn’t return the color of your tongue to its usual pink after a few days, though, it’s still wise to schedule an appointment with Dr. Bentz to determine if there’s an underlying cause like bacterial growth.
If your tongue turns gray, the culprit is often either eczema or geographic tongue. In addition to turning your tongue gray, a geographic tongue can cause parts of your tongue to become smooth, losing the small, bumpy papillae that are normally on its surface. These smooth patches might move around, healing in one spot but appearing in another. Geographic tongue may look strange and can sometimes be uncomfortable, but it’s a minor condition that often resolves on its own. You should still schedule an appointment with Dr. Bentz, however, to receive a proper diagnosis and make sure that there’s no other cause to the changes on your tongue!
Your tongue can tell you more about your health than you may realize.
Whether it’s providing a guide to improving your oral hygiene routine or helping you or your doctor identify health concerns, your tongue has a lot to say about your health; it’s just a matter of learning to listen! Paying attention to your tongue health, knowing when it’s time to step up your oral hygiene routine, scheduling an appointment with Dr. Bentz, and/or seeking other medical care can all make a big difference in your oral and overall health.