Tongue problems may include a tongue that’s painful, enlarged or swollen, oddly textured or an unusual color, like white, yellow, brown or black. Infection, inflammation and conditions you’re born with or develop later in life can all cause symptoms affecting your tongue. Most tongue problems are easy to diagnose and treat.
Your tongue is a powerful muscle that helps you chew and swallow food. It also enables you to speak. Problems with your tongue — including pain, swelling or trouble moving your tongue — can make these routine activities difficult. Other tongue problems, like a tongue that changes color or texture, can feel strange and upsetting when you don’t know the cause.
Most tongue problems aren’t serious. But sometimes, changes in your tongue signal a more serious condition. See a healthcare provider to get your tongue checked out if you’re having severe symptoms that last longer than a few weeks.
It can. How your tongue looks, feels, moves and functions can provide clues about your health. Often, the clues are pretty straightforward. For example, a painful tongue may be a sign that you drank a hot cup of coffee too fast. Other times, you’ll need to see a healthcare provider to determine the issue. For example, a swollen or enlarged tongue may mean an allergic reaction, a nutritional deficiency or a tumor, among other things.
If you’re unsure, see a healthcare provider. They can advise you on whether you need treatment or if you can manage the issue at home with lifestyle changes.
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Common symptoms that may affect your tongue include:
Tongue problems or changes in your tongue may be a sign of short-term or long-term (chronic) conditions. They range in severity from simple first-degree burns from eating hot foods to more serious conditions like oral cancer.
Macroglossia involves having an atypically large tongue. The cause is usually an underlying condition you’re born with (congenital) or acquired over time. Conditions that cause an enlarged tongue include:
Glossitis involves having a swollen tongue because of inflammation. Causes include:
You may have trouble moving your tongue if you have nerve damage affecting the tissue or a structural issue that limits movement. Causes include:
Tongue problems include complete loss of taste (ageusia), partial loss of taste and a changing sense of taste.
Potential causes include:
Various conditions get their names from the key symptom: Changes in your tongue’s appearance. A white, yellow or black tongue is usually a sign of poor hygiene. Not caring for your tongue can cause bacteria and fungi to grow. In rare cases, color and texture changes signal an underlying medical condition.
A red tongue may be a symptom of a variety of conditions, including:
Red or white patches on your tongue or thickened areas that don’t go away may be a sign of tongue cancer.
Tongue pain, including soreness and burning, is one of the most common tongue problems. Usually, tongue pain results from infection and inflammation.
Common causes of tongue pain include:
You may experience tongue pain alongside other symptoms affecting your tongue, like a swollen tongue or color changes — as with anemia, geographic tongue and glossitis.
A healthcare provider will consider the changes in your tongue alongside other symptoms and information to diagnose the underlying issue. They may:
Your experience and the tests you receive depend on what’s most likely causing your tongue problems.
The approach you’ll need to treat or manage your condition depends on what’s causing your symptoms. Treatments may include:
Not all conditions that cause tongue problems are preventable. Still, you can reduce your risk of infection and inflammation by practicing good oral hygiene. Brush twice daily and floss once each day. Scrape your tongue to remove bacteria. Get regular dental cleanings.
Avoid smoking and using tobacco products, which can cause painful ulcers and increase your risk of oral cancer.
Schedule a visit with a healthcare provider if you have severe pain or symptoms that don’t resolve within a few weeks. Most tongue problems improve over time. Symptoms that don’t improve may signal an underlying condition that requires treatment.
Healthy tongues are uniformly pink and covered in tiny bumps. Diseased tongues may be dark red, white, yellow or even black. They may be covered in fuzzy growths instead of bumpy. They may appear smooth instead of bumpy.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Most of the time, you shouldn’t stress over changes in your tongue. Symptoms usually improve on their own in time. If symptoms persist or get worse, schedule a visit with your healthcare provider. Often, a physical exam is all it takes for a diagnosis. Your healthcare provider can recommend treatments based on what’s causing the issues with your tongue.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/14/2023.
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