What is the tongue?
Your tongue is a muscular organ in your mouth that aids in chewing, speaking and breathing.
What does the tongue do?
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.
Where is the tongue located?
Your tongue runs from your hyoid bone (located in the middle of your neck) to the floor of your mouth.
What is the tongue made of?
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:
- Filiform. Located on the front two-thirds of your tongue, filiform papillae are thread-like in appearance. Unlike other types of papillae, filiform papillae don’t contain taste buds.
- Fungiform. These papillae get their name from their mushroom-like shape. Located mostly on the sides and tip of your tongue, fungiform papillae consist of approximately 1,600 taste buds.
- Circumvallate. The small bumps on the back of your tongue are the circumvallate papillae. They appear larger than the other types of papillae, and they contain approximately 250 taste buds.
- Foliate. Located on each side of the back portion of your tongue, the foliate papillae look like rough folds of tissue. Each person has about 20 foliate papillae, which contain several hundred taste buds.
How do taste buds work?
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:
- Umami (savory).
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.
What color should a healthy tongue be?
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.
Conditions and Disorders
What are some conditions or problems that affect the tongue?
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.
Difficulty moving your tongue
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.
Changes in taste
Tongue numbness can be a symptom of many different conditions, including:
- An allergic reaction to certain foods or chemicals.
- Autoimmune disorders, such as lupus, scleroderma or multiple sclerosis (MS).
- Raynaud’s phenomenon, a condition in which your small blood vessels constrict.
- Nerve damage, which may occur after dental work or a tongue piercing.
- A lack of certain vitamins or minerals, such as calcium, iron, zinc and phosphorus.
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.
Sore, bumpy tongue
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.
Enlarged tongue (macroglossia)
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).
Bald tongue (atrophic glossitis)
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.
Changes in color
If your tongue is discolored, it could be a sign of an underlying problem.
- White tongue: White patches on your tongue could indicate thrush, lichen planus, leukoplakia or other conditions.
- Red or purple tongue: If your tongue is red or purple in color, it could be related to harmless conditions like geographic tongue. But it could also be a symptom of vitamin deficiencies, scarlet fever or Kawasaki disease.
- Black tongue: If your tongue is yellow, brown or black, it could be a condition called black hairy tongue. Despite its strange name, people with black hairy tongue don’t really have hair on their tongues. This condition happens when bacteria, food and other debris build up on your tongue’s filiform papillae.
- Yellow tongue: A yellow tongue is usually the result of bacterial overgrowth, eating certain foods or smoking. In some cases, yellow tongue may be a symptom of an underlying condition, such as psoriasis or, rarely, jaundice.
How can I maintain a healthy tongue?
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.
How should I clean my tongue?
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.
Can I just use mouthwash to clean my tongue?
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.
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