Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Oral Care

Select An Article
Font Size

Tongue Problem Basics

Though often hailed as "the strongest muscle in the body," the tongue is made up of a group of muscles that allow us to taste food, swallow, and talk. A healthy tongue is pink and covered with small nodules called papillae.

Because you use your tongue constantly, it can be frustrating and uncomfortable when you experience tongue problems, including discoloration and soreness. There are a variety of causes for a number of common tongue symptoms. Fortunately, the majority of tongue problems are not serious and most can be resolved quickly.

Healthy Teeth and Gums

The healthier your teeth and gums are, the less risk you have for tooth decay and gum disease. View the Mouth Problems Slideshow.

In some instances, though, a discolored or painful tongue can indicate more serious conditions, including vitamin deficiencies, AIDS, or oral cancer. For this reason, it is important to seek medical advice if you have any ongoing problems with your tongue.

What Causes a White Tongue?

There are a number of things that can cause a whitish coating or white spots to develop on the tongue, including:

  • Leukoplakia. This condition causes cells in the mouth to grow excessively. That, in turn, leads to the formation of white patches inside the mouth, including on the tongue. Although not dangerous on its own, leukoplakia can be a precursor to cancer. So it is important for your dentist to determine the cause of white patches on your tongue. Leukoplakia can develop when the tongue has been irritated, and it is often found in people who use tobacco products.
  • Oral thrush. Also known as candidiasis, oral thrush is a yeast infection that develops inside the mouth. The condition results in white patches that are often cottage cheese-like in consistency on the surfaces of the mouth and tongue. Oral thrush is most commonly seen in infants and the elderly, especially denture wearers, or in people with weakened immune systems. People with diabetes and people taking inhaled steroids for asthma or lung disease can also get thrush. Oral thrush is more likely to occur after the use of antibiotics, which may kill the "good" bacteria in the mouth. Eating plain yogurt with live and active cultures may help restore the proper fauna in your mouth. Additionally, medications may be used to combat the infection.
  • Oral lichen planus. If you have a network of raised white lines on your tongue that has a lace-like appearance, you may be suffering from oral lichen planus. Doctors are often unable to determine the cause of this condition, which often resolves on its own. Practicing proper dental hygiene, avoiding tobacco, and limiting your intake of foods that cause irritation to your mouth may helpful.

What Causes a Red or Strawberry Tongue?

There are multiple factors that can cause a normally pink tongue to turn red. In some instances, the tongue may even take on the appearance of a strawberry with enlarged, red taste buds dotting the surface. Possible causes include:

  • Vitamin deficiencies. Deficiencies of folic acid and vitamin B-12 may cause your tongue to take on a reddish appearance.
  • Geographic tongue. This condition, also known as benign migratory glossitis, is named for the map-like pattern of reddish spots that develop on the surface of the tongue. At times, these patches have a white border around them and their location on the tongue may shift over time. Though usually harmless, you should check with your dentist to investigate red patches that last longer than 2 weeks. Once the dentist has determined that the redness is a result of geographic tongue, no further treatment is necessary. If the condition makes your tongue sore or uncomfortable, you may be prescribed topical medications to ease discomfort.
  • Scarlet fever. People who get this infection may develop a strawberry tongue. Be sure to contact a doctor immediately if you have a high fever and red tongue. Antibiotic treatment is necessary for scarlet fever.
  • Kawasaki syndrome. This disease, usually seen in children under the age of 5, affects the blood vessels in the body and can cause strawberry tongue. During the severe phase of illness, children often run an extremely high fever and may also have redness and swelling in the hands and feet.

 

Next Article:

How Do I Measure Up? Get the Facts Fast!

Number of Days Per Week I Floss

Get the latest Oral Health newsletter delivered to your inbox!


or
Answer:
Never
(0)
Good
(1-3)
Better
(4-6)
Best
(7)

You are currently

Only 18.5% of Americans never floss. You are missing out on a simple way to make a big difference in the health of your mouth. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Floss removes food trapped between the teeth and removes the film of bacteria that forms there before it turns to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Try flossing just one tooth to get started.

You are one of 31% of Americans who don't floss daily. You are missing out on a simple way to make a big difference in the health of your mouth. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Aim for 3 more days!

You are one of 31% of Americans who don't floss daily, but you're well on your way to making a positive impact on your teeth and gums. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Aim for all 7 days!

Only 50.5% of Americans floss daily, and good for you that you are one of them! Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Congratulations on your good oral health habit!

SOURCES:

American Dental Association, Healthy People 2010

This tool is intended only for adults 18 and older.

Start Over

Step:  of 

Today on WebMD

close up of woman sticking out tongue
Sores, discoloration, bumps and more.
toothbrushes
10 secrets to a brighter smile.
 
Veneer smile
Before and after.
Woman checking her bite in mirror
Why dental care is important.
 

Woman dissatisfied with granola bar
Slideshow
woman with jaw pain
Quiz
 
eroded front teeth
Slideshow
brushing teeth
Video
 

Variety shades of tea
Slideshow
mouth and dental instruments
Article
 
Closeup of a happy young guy brushing his teeth
Tool
womans smile
Video