Your tongue is essential for chewing and swallowing food. It also helps you speak and form words clearly. Changes in the appearance of your tongue could indicate an underlying condition. If your symptoms last longer than a couple of weeks, schedule a visit with your healthcare provider.
Your tongue is a muscular organ in your mouth that aids in chewing, speaking and breathing.
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A digestive organ, your tongue moves food around your mouth to help you chew and swallow. It also helps you make different sounds so you can speak and form words clearly. Your tongue helps keep your airway open so you can breathe properly, too.
Your tongue runs from your hyoid bone (located in the middle of your neck) to the floor of your mouth.
Your tongue is mostly made of muscles. It’s anchored inside of your mouth by webs of strong tissue and it’s covered by mucosa (a moist, pink lining that covers certain organs and body cavities). Your tongue is also covered with different types of papillae (bumps) and taste buds. You have four different types of taste buds, including:
Your taste buds are clusters of nerve cells that transmit sensory messages to your brain. There are five basic tastes that stimulate your taste buds, including:
There’s a common misconception that different areas of the tongue taste different things. In reality, all of your taste buds have the ability to detect all five flavors — some regions of your tongue are just slightly more sensitive to certain tastes.
A healthy tongue is typically pink, though the shades of light and dark can vary. If your tongue is discolored, it could indicate a health problem.
Your tongue can tell you a lot about your overall health. Listed below are symptoms that can affect your tongue and the underlying conditions they may represent.
In most cases, tongue movement issues are due to nerve damage. With nerve damage, the muscles that control your tongue may be weak or paralyzed.
Tongue-tie (ankyloglossia) can also make tongue movement difficult. With this condition, your frenum (the band of tissue that connects your tongue to the floor of your mouth) is too short. As a result, it’s difficult to move your tongue freely. In babies, this can cause breastfeeding problems. Tongue-tie may also have a negative impact on speech. Tongue-tie can be treated with a frenectomy.
Tongue numbness can be a symptom of many different conditions, including:
Sometimes, tongue numbness or tingling is a symptom of stroke. If tongue numbness develops in combination with facial droop, difficulty speaking, confusion, dizziness, loss of vision or severe headache, call 911 or head to your nearest emergency room.
Irritations or minor infections are the most common causes of tongue soreness. Smoking, canker sores or ill-fitting dentures can also cause this type of discomfort. In some cases, a sore tongue can be a symptom of oral cancer. (Keep in mind, though, not all oral cancers cause pain.)
If your mouth or tongue feels burnt or scalded, it could be a condition known as burning mouth syndrome. This condition isn’t harmful, but it can be uncomfortable. Burning mouth syndrome can affect anyone, but it’s most common in postmenopausal people.
The average tongue is approximately 3 inches long and about 2.52 inches wide. An enlarged tongue may be associated with trauma, inflammatory conditions or certain health issues like primary amyloidosis (a rare disorder in which clumps of abnormal proteins build up in your organs and tissues).
With this condition, your tongue loses its bumpy texture and appears completely smooth. Bald tongue may be a symptom of anemia or a vitamin B deficiency.
While cold sores most often develop on your lips, they can also appear on your tongue. Cold sores are caused by the highly contagious herpes simplex virus.
If your tongue is discolored, it could be a sign of an underlying problem.
To keep your tongue healthy, practice good oral hygiene. When you brush and floss your teeth, don’t forget to clean your tongue, too. You should also visit your dentist for routine cleanings and examinations.
Quitting smoking, drinking plenty of water and eating a balanced diet can also help keep your tongue healthy.
Cleaning your tongue reduces harmful bacteria in your mouth that can lead to bad breath (halitosis) and plaque build up. The best way to clean your tongue is to brush it. To do this, use your toothbrush to brush your tongue up and down and side to side. Then, rinse your mouth out with water. You can also clean your tongue with a tongue scraper, which can be found in most pharmacies.
Mouthwash only kills the outer cells of biofilm. (Biofilm is a group of microorganisms that covers the surfaces of your mouth, including your tongue). So, it’s best to physically remove bacteria with a toothbrush or tongue scraper.
Think of cleaning your car. When you spray your car with a hose, large pieces of debris come off. But when you run your finger along the surface, there’s still a fine layer of dirt. To remove this layer, you’ll need a brush or a sponge. Same with your tongue: You’ll need to physically scrub it to get it clean.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Your tongue is as unique as you are. Just like your fingerprint, there’s no other quite like it. Taking good care of your tongue keeps it healthy and reduces the risk of harmful oral bacteria. If your tongue becomes sore or changes in appearance, schedule a visit with your healthcare provider right away. They can help identify the problem and determine if your symptoms are related to an underlying condition.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 04/25/2022.
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