Ever wonder why doctors examine your mouth during a regular checkup? When the doc asks you to say “Ah,” they’re glancing at your tonsils and tongue.

You may have noticed that this routine doesn’t take too long – a few seconds. That’s because doctors can gain valuable insight into the appearance of this muscle. Indeed, it reveals a lot about your wellness.

If you think about it, the tongue is often overlooked. It’s not visible to others (mostly); we don’t pay it much attention unless we’re brushing it, and, the tongue just kind of sits.

The tongue, however, is crucial to our health and function. Without it, we couldn’t eat, drink, taste, chew or talk.

In this article, we’re going to discuss what it can reveal about your health. As it turns out, it’s quite a lot.

“Any discoloration, lumps, sores or pain (of the tongue) should be monitored and evaluated by a medical professional if they don’t go away within two weeks.” – Dr. Daniel Allan, Family Physician at the Cleveland Clinic

Quick anatomy lesson

Our tongue doesn’t have “skin.”

Instead, it’s covered with a pink, moist tissue (mucosa) and maintained by a large flow of blood. The mucosa and high blood content give the tongue its red-pink coloration.

The tongue’s color provides the most valuable information. As such, its coloration is what we’re going to focus on here.

What Does Your Tongue Say About Your Health?

The tongue consists of three sections – the apex, body, and root. The apex is the tip; the body is the rest of it  extends back into the throat, and the root fixes it to the mouth’s base.

Abnormal Colors

As mentioned, a healthy tongue always has a red-pink hue. Certain colors that may be considered unusual include:

  • Black
  • Blue
  • Bright red
  • Purple
  • White
  • Yellow


A whitish color is by far the most common type of discoloration. It is often related to continued, poor oral hygiene. Other conditions that may cause whitening of the tongue include:

  • Canker sores: visible white sores on the tongue. Canker sores often contain white to yellowish lesions at the center. Though painful, canker sores are usually rather harmless. Repeated cases, however, should be examined to test for possible underlying conditions.
  • Leukoplakia: a condition associated with irritation caused by chewing tobacco. The condition causes cells called mucous membranes to inflame. The discoloration is evident when the apex of the tongue or inner cheek of the mouth shows whitish-grey patches.
  • Oral thrush (candidiasis): manifests from a yeast called Candida albicans. This yeast creates white, creamy, textured patches on the surface. Thrush can happen to anyone, though people with a suppressed immune system, the very young, and the elderly are especially at risk.


Strange looking as it may be, medical conditions don’t typically cause a black tongue. Sometimes, the tongue may appear black by elongation of the papillae, and small bumps on it’s surface. Black tongue can stem from certain OTC medications (e.g., antibiotics and bismuth), mouthwash products, lack of oral hygiene, or tobacco use.


A tongue that looks blue should always be considered a medical emergency. As is the case with other parts of the body, the color blue often indicates a cutoff of blood somewhere.

A blue tongue may be a sign of cyanosis, a serious condition that disrupts oxygen supply to our tissue. Blood disorders, blood vessel diseases, or cardiac conditions may cause cyanosis.


Bright red

Bright red coloring may be due to a couple of things. Glossitis, or inflammation of this muscle, is the most common. Bright red may also be a sign of nutrient deficiency. Family physician, Dr. Danial Allan, states, “Folic acid and vitamin B-12 deficiencies may cause your tongue to take on a reddish appearance.”

More severe conditions include Scarlet fever, which causes the surface to have a red and bumpy texture. Dr. Allan says, “If you have a high fever and a red tongue, you need to see your family doctor.” Scarlet fever can be easily treatable with the appropriate antibiotics.


A purplish color is uncommon when you compare it to other color variations. There are two “usual suspects” for a purple hue:

  • Nutrient deficiency, particularly when we lack vitamin B2 (riboflavin).
  • As a precursor to the blue, which is a potentially severe medical condition. Thus, a person whose tongue exhibits purplish colors requires monitoring by medical staff until the color recedes.
  • A purple hue may also arise from certain diseases, and you should speak with a licensed physician.


As with a purple tongue, yellow is a rare tint for the tongue. It usually precedes the growth of the black tongue. Sporadically, yellow may be a symptom of jaundice – a medical condition causing yellowing or greenish skin pigmentation due to high bilirubin levels.

tonsil stones

Final Thoughts on Tongue Color

When brushing your pearly whites, make sure you quickly check your tongue. Cleaning your tongue using a scraper can eliminate some white stuff hanging around.

Also, look for lumps, lesions, or other strange growths. Sores that do not recede within 14 days should be examined by a doctor.

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