Your tongue can provide a surprising picture of your overall health and wellness. One of the reasons regular visits to your dentist are so important is because dentists can often spot problems in their early stages. While some tongue issues are directly linked to oral health and hygiene, your dentist can be one of the first responders for several other emerging conditions.

Compromised Immune System

Immune system disorders can be tricky to diagnose, as clinical signs of a weakened or compromised immune system are nebulous and often overlooked. Your dentist can help spot clinical evidence of a host of immune system disorders, including HIV, the Epstein-Barr virus and autoimmune disorders. 

 

Individuals with dysfunctional immune systems may experience an overgrowth of white on their tongues, resembling cottage cheese. This is sometimes an overgrowth of Candida albicans, also called a yeast infection or oral thrush. While C. albicans is present in everyone’s mouth to some degree, our bodies usually keep the numbers of this fungus from growing out of control. When that fails to happen, it can signal a deeper problem with your overall health.

 

Other folks with compromised or weakened immune systems may exhibit hairy, white patches along the sides of their tongue that appear serrated or corrugated. This condition, called hairy leukoplakia, can signal the need for further medical investigation. Some people with immune systems compromised by systemic disease may discover they have a black, hairy tongue. This is an overgrowth of papillae, the normal structures of the tongue, that fail to shed as they normally would and harbor bacteria as a result. 

Nutritional Deficiencies

It’s true you are what you eat, and your tongue could be letting your dentist know if you aren’t getting the right vitamins, minerals and nutrients in your diet. Folic acid and vitamin B-12, for example, are crucial to the development of your tongue’s papillae. When you lack either of these nutrients, the structures can fail to mature and your tongue can take on a bright and shiny, red glow.

A lack of vitamin B-6, vitamin B-12, folic acid, iron or zinc may also contribute to a condition known as geographic tongue, where portions of the tongue appear burned. While doctors aren’t completely sure what causes the condition, a lack of these essential vitamins and nutrients is often found in those with the disorder. Many with geographic tongue also experience psoriasis, and they might experience an acrid metallic taste or complete loss of taste in addition to the alarming appearance of red patches. 

Neurological Disorders

Your dentist isn’t just monitoring the appearance of your tongue for potential issues — how you move and control your tongue can also give clues about your health. If you have trouble sticking your tongue out straight or controlling it smoothly, perhaps unable to move it from side to side, you may have suffered a stroke or ministroke in the recent past; you might also be at a greater risk for one in the near future. 

 

A lack of muscle tone in your tongue — or a tongue that seems to have shrunk since your last routine exam — can also signal potential neurological issues. Tongue tremors, difficulty swallowing or paralysis of part or all of the tongue can signal the potential for ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. 

What Your Tongue Can Tell You

Any changes to the appearance, muscle tone or overall condition of your tongue can be a flag for changes in your overall health. And while not every change is cause for worry, it pays to monitor changes to your tongue. Sores, for example, aren’t that uncommon — who hasn’t grazed their cheek with an overly enthusiastic bite intended for their favorite food, for example? But if that wound fails to heal within a week or two, you may want to have it checked out by a medical professional.

New colors, odors and sensations (or lack thereof) can also give you some insight into what’s going on with your body as a whole. If you have any questions, your dentist may ask you to book an appointment to take a look — or refer you to your primary care physician or a specialist like an ear, nose and throat doctor. 

How We Can Help

The office of Drs. Krieger and Hur can help you keep an eye on your health, but only if we see you regularly. Regular exams — at least twice a year — give us the ability to figure out what’s normal for your body, and it gives us a chance to spy potential problems. We’re honored that you’d entrust us with helping take care of your teeth, tongue and gums — and your whole health and wellness in the process.

To get started, click here to send us an email to make an appointment for your exam today. You can also call the office at (201) 560-0606. We take pride in making sure your experience is free from pain and anxiety, so don’t hesitate to bring up any concerns or questions when you book your checkup.