Remember when your parents taught you that it was rude to stick your tongue out at people? The only exception was when you open your mouth for a medical examination. If the healthcare provider sees a white tongue, what does that say about your general health?
Your tongue is perhaps one of the most amazing muscles in your body. It’s the only muscle group not covered by skin, so you can see and touch it. Also, it’s the only muscle group in your body that moves independently of bones and joints.
Since we are all individuals, not everyone’s tongue is the same. Some people’s tongues may be a little longer and some may be thicker than others. You probably remember from high school biology class that some people can roll their tongues up like a taco while others can’t do this trick.
According to an Informed Health article, your tongue muscles are covered with a thick layer of connective tissue. If you look at the surface of this fantastic muscle, you’ll notice it is coated with a special mucus membrane, says the article. Its root is connected towards the back of your throat on the floor of your mouth.
The Three Sections of Your Tongue
While it appears as one organ, your tongue is composed of three sections with different jobs. The sides and tip of your tongue are capable of complex movement for speech and primary food digestion. The bumpy surface of the back of your tongue contains many groups of taste buds.
You can’t see where the root of your tongue is connected to the floor towards your bottom throat. It keeps the organ stabilized and didn’t move. These sections work together to provide your sense of taste and food texture.
Taste is one of your body’s five senses, and your tongue mostly governs it. See the thin mucus membrane that covers the surface of your tongue? It’s embedded with small bumps called the papilla. Each papilla has one of two functions:
Many people often mistake the raised papilla on their tongue’s surface as taste buds. Most of your papilla contain clusters of taste buds, also called gustatory cells. Each of these has microvilli, which are microscopic hairs that send taste messages to your brain.
Since the human body craves variety, your tongue can identify five taste sensations: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory umami. An article published by The National Library of Medicine shares that all areas of your tongue can detect these tastes. It also debunks the misconception that your language is divided into sections that identify a specific taste sensation.
When you take a bite of food, your tongue instantly starts sending messages to your brain about flavor, texture, and temperature. Meanwhile, it has an essential role in primary digestion. This limber group of muscles flips and churns to guide the food to be pulverized by your molars.
Your tongue swishes from side to side to mix the chewed food with digestive enzymes in your saliva. Then, it directs the mixed food to the back of your throat to be swallowed by your esophagus.
If it weren’t for your tongue, speech would be impossible. It collaborates with the mouth, teeth, and throat to form sounds that compose all languages. It provides the many nuances of the world’s dialects, from the lovely rolled “r” sounds to more complex, guttural syllables.
One of the most prevailing myths is the supposed danger of swallowing the tongue, especially during a seizure. Fortunately, this marvel of muscle is secured to the bottom of your mouth by a tough membrane called the lingual frenulum.
You can look in a mirror, lift your tongue, and see how it is attached firmly from the bottom. So, it’s impossible to swallow your tongue.
Consider Your Tongue a Map to Your Health
You can also thank your tongue for being an essential guard against invading bacteria and viruses. At its base toward the back of your throat, you have small glands called tonsils and adenoids. These will often catch the germs and get an infection called tonsillitis.
Fortunately, these glands capture the infection before it spreads inside your body. If you are like many people, you may have had your tonsils and adenoids removed due to chronic diseases. However, other people go through life fine with these protective glands intact.
Have you ever wondered why your healthcare provider always asks you to stick out your tongue and “say ahh?” It’s because they know that the surface of your tongue provides vital clues to your present health. They are looking for any discoloration, such as a white tongue.
If you’re feeling a little under the weather, you can usually feel an unpleasant coating in your mouth and see it on your tongue in the mirror. It’s one of the countless ways your body is sending distress signals. Your tongue is one of the first areas that show signs of an issue.
When you notice that you have a white layer over your tongue, it doesn’t mean that your tongue is turning colors. Infection in your system can cause those bumpy papillae to become inflamed and swollen. Consequently, these swollen papilla trap bacteria and debris, giving the tongue’s surface a fuzzy white appearance.
What Does a White Tongue Mean to Your Wellness?
At first glance of your tongue, your healthcare provider gets clues about possible health conditions. Many reasons can cause a white layer on this muscle. Here are five common things that a white tongue may reveal about your health.
This mouth and throat condition is common in babies and younger children, although adults can get it, too. When the Candida yeast that’s usually present in your body multiplies too quickly, it can present as a white fungal infection in your mouth and tongue. Simple remedies often clear it up quickly.
If you have chronic irritation in your throat and mouth, you may experience this disorder. In defense, your tongue may have an overgrowth of cells that combine with keratin, forming a white layer.
Leukoplakia is often seen in those who smoke and drink alcohol, but it can sometimes develop for no reason. It’s usually benign but can develop into cancer cells.
3. Geographic Tongue
Your tongue is like all parts of your body as it discards dead cells and generates new ones. If some parts of your tongue generate new cells quicker than other parts, you may notice white patches. These patches can get tender, sore, and infected.
4. Oral Lichen Planus
If your immune system is compromised, you may develop a chronic mouth inflammation called oral lichen planus. Not only does it present as a white coating on your tongue, but you can also develop painful mouth and tongue lesions. Although oral lichen planus isn’t curable, it can be managed efficiently.
This bacterial condition is a severe sexually transmitted disease that can be fatal if not treated. Of all its tell-tale symptoms, white tongue is usually among them. Of course, your healthcare provider will run tests and compile your medical history before confirming such a precarious diagnosis.
Several risk factors can make you more vulnerable to developing white patches on your tongue. Many of them are merely an irritation and aren’t life-threatening. If you fit into any of these categories, your tongue may be affected:
- Age: Young children and older seniors are more prone to white patches on their tongues and mouth due to thrush.
- Antibiotics: Sometimes, the antibiotics meant to fight a bacterial infection can become problematic themselves. You may be sensitive to certain antibiotics or use too many. Natural yeast in your mouth can overpopulate and cause an infection and white patches on your tongue.
- Damage: If your tongue is damaged by chewing or other trauma, it may develop white patches. Dentures are notorious for irritating the gums, mouth, and tongue.
- Hypothyroidism: When your thyroid is underactive, it doesn’t produce enough hormones to regulate your metabolism. It often affects the color of your tongue.
- Substance abuse: Chewing tobacco, smoking, alcoholism, and drug abuse wreak havoc on your entire body. They can often leave chemical residues in your mouth that show up as pale patches on your tongue.
- Dehydration: Do you drink enough water every day? If not, you can become dehydrated, and your health can be compromised. You may notice a dry mouth, bad breath, and white tongue.
- Medications: Many medications and cancer treatments can dry your mouth and cause your tongue to get a white coating.
- Poor oral hygiene: Remember to brush and floss your teeth after each meal, or at least twice a day. Also, don’t forget to give your tongue a good brushing or use a tongue scraper. If not, bacteria and food particles can cause tooth decay, gum disease, and discolor your tongue.
Your tongue may be small, but it plays a significant role in sustaining life and your well-being. Take care of it each day with gentle brushings or scraping and be familiar with its landscape. If you notice a white coating, unpleasant taste, or smell, it could signal a health condition, even something as small as halitosis.