Watch your tongue: Its hue could be giving you clues about your health.
Brown, red, pink, green, blue—could your tongue’s hue be saying something about you? Next time you pass a mirror, you might want to take a look.
OK, if your tongue is blue, it’s likely from that blue popsicle you just ate. Other colors, however, could signal certain health issues. While many tongue color changes are harmless, some could be a sign of something worthy of medical attention. Here’s what your tongue hues could be telling you about your health.
If your tongue is white, it could mean there’s a buildup of bacteria, debris, and cells on your papillae (those bumps on your tongue that contain taste buds). It’s usually harmless and temporary, and can be helped by brushing or scraping the tongue clean.
If your tongue is white with red (sometimes bleeding) bumps, it could mean you have a fungal infection called oral thrush. Oral thrush is caused by types of yeast fungus called Candida that live in your mouth. It’s rarely dangerous and not necessarily painful, but it can give your mouth an unpleasant cottony or burning feeling that can make it hard to eat, speak and, with severe infections, hard to swallow. If left untreated it can last for months or years, and rarely, move into the bloodstream and cause life-threatening blood poisoning. Thrush is typically treated with antifungal medications.
If your tongue is bright red (and you didn’t just eat a cherry lollipop), it could be inflamed from a vitamin B12 deficiency or scarlet fever.
Vitamin B12 deficiency anemia is a low red blood cell count due to a lack of the vitamin B12, which can cause a swollen, red tongue (among other symptoms, like pale skin, fatigue or digestive issues). Vitamin B12 deficiency anemia is usually diagnosed with a physical exam or blood test, and may be treated with monthly vitamin B12 shots, supplements, or eating more vitamin B12-rich foods, like meat and dairy.
Scarlet fever is caused by an infection with bacteria called A streptococcus—the same bacteria that cause strep throat. Along with abdominal pain, chills, and fever, scarlet fever can also cause your tongue to turn red and swell. With proper antibiotic treatment, the symptoms of scarlet fever should get better within a couple days.
Black hairy tongue
Strange? Yes. Harmful? Usually not. A tongue that is dark and looks hairy means it can’t shed tissue normally. This causes your papillae to grow to about 1 millimeter, which makes them look like hair. This overgrowth can also cause a buildup of food, bacteria, and yeast. Depending on the buildup, this can cause your tongue to turn different colors, like black, as well as brown, white, green, or pink.
This hairy tongue is caused by poor oral hygiene, certain meds, or excessive tobacco use, but it’s usually harmless and can be treated with a toothbrush or tongue scraper. If you’re getting hairy tongue on the regular, check with your dentist. Hairy tongue that can’t be helped with good oral hygiene may be treated with medical or surgical treatments.
If your funky tongue hue is sticking around and becomes painful, don’t bite your tongue—tell a doctor or dentist ASAP.
Oral thrush (oral candidiasis): Overview. PubMed Health, 2016. (Accessed on February 28, 2022 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0088218)
Vitamin B12 deficiency. U.S. National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus, 2016. (Accessed on February 28, 2022 at https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000574.htm)
Scarlet fever. U.S. National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus, 2016. (Accessed on February 28, 2022 at https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000974.htm)Hairy Tongue. The American Academy of Oral Medicine. (Accessed on February 28, 2022 at http://www.aaom.com/hairy-tongue)