Let's talk tongues

Lucy Stock, dentist at Gentle Dental Care, Belfast, on how the human tongue can be a vital visual indicator of our health and wellbeing

For those who know how to read the tongue’s secrets, it can reveal signs of disease and imbalance.
Lucy Stock

IN 1871, new medical students at King's College Hospital were warned by Sir Thomas Watson in his introductory lecture: "A patient would think you careless or ignorant of your craft if you did not, at every visit, look at his tongue as well as feel his pulse."

Tongue diagnosis is one such practice still widely used today. For those who know how to read the tongue's secrets, it can reveal signs of disease and imbalance.

When all is well, the tongue is normally pink with tiny bumps called papillae. Your taste buds are scattered among the papillae.

Occasionally germs and food debris get stuck in between these papillae causing irritation and a white build up. The white build-up can be made worse by stress, hormone imbalance, smoking or dehydration due to excessive alcohol or drugs.

Luckily, the symptoms usually clear up within a few days without any serious treatment. Try introducing a tongue scraper, to remove the white coating, into your daily cleaning routine.

There are many other causes of white tongues. For instance the microscopic fungus called Candida typically lives harmlessly in people.

However, if your inner ecosystem is out of balance or you use asthma inhalers you have a greater risk of the Candida organisms proliferating into what is commonly known as thrush.

This leads to a 'cottage cheese' white coating that bleeds slightly when its removed. It can be a painful condition, especially when eating or drinking.

If your tongue is irritated over many years due to the likes of smoking or regular alcohol consumption then the soft tissues can change building thicker whiter areas known as Leukoplakia.

The patches can't be brushed off and are often harmless but very rarely they can turn into cancer. Reducing or stopping the irritant gives the tissues a chance to turn back to normal.

Leukoplakia is totally unrelated to another patchy white tongue condition known as Geographic tongue; so named as it looks sort of like a map.

This is not a serious condition although it can be annoying for some people who find that their tongue is irritated by certain toothpastes and spicy foods.

One contagious infection that causes the tongue to change is Scarlet fever which mostly affects children and comes with high temperatures.

Scarlet fever tongues are whitish and described as looking like strawberries with characteristic red spots.

So most white tongues are usually nothing to worry about but ask your dentist to check if you have a white area that doesn't go away in a couple of weeks.

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