Though it often gets neglected and overlooked, your tongue is an important organ that has a lot to say about your health. In fact, your tongue might just be able to detect cancer in its early stages or even discover a food allergy you never knew you had. Curious what else your tongue is capable of? Keep reading to learn all of the things it can tell you about your well-being.
1. You have a vitamin deficiency.
When looking for vitamin deficiencies, doctors are instructed to pay close attention to a patient’s tongue. Why? According to Stanford Medicine, iron, folate, and vitamin B12 deficiencies are all known to cause the phenomenon known as smooth tongue, which is characterized by inflammation and a noticeable absence of bumps.
2. You have scarlet fever.
Scarlet fever is an illness caused by the same strain of Streptococcus bacteria that makes people sick with strep throat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one of the easiest ways to tell whether a person—usually a child—has scarlet fever is by looking at their tongue. Toward the beginning of the illness, patients often find that their tongue is swollen with a whitish coating. In some cases, it even has a red and bumpy appearance that is aptly referred to as “strawberry tongue.”
3. You have oral cancer.
If you ever notice a strange sore on your tongue that just won’t heal, you should seek medical attention. As family physician Daniel Allan, MD, explained to the Cleveland Clinic, “a lump or sore on your tongue that doesn’t go away within two weeks could be an indication of oral cancer.”
Many instances of early-stage oral cancer are painless, so don’t assume that the lump on your tongue is benign just because it isn’t causing you pain.
4. You have diabetes.
One of the many health conditions and risk factors associated with oral flush, a fungal infection characterized by painful white or red patches on the tongue, is diabetes. According to the Mayo Clinic, the excess sugar found in the bloodstreams of people with diabetes feed the bacteria that cause oral thrush and therefore make the infection more prevalent among those with the autoimmune disease.
5. You’re hypoglycemic.
Hypoglycemia is a fancy way to refer to low blood sugar. Most often experienced by diabetics, this condition is characterized by symptoms like shaking, sweating, and, when it comes to the mouth, numbness or tingling of the tongue, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
6. You have HIV/AIDS.
“White hairs along the sides of the tongue are the classic appearance of oral hairy leukoplakia, the result of EBV infection in HIV-positive individuals,” notes Stanford Medicine. Other tongue conditions related to HIV/AIDS include oral thrush and red sores that can also be present in other parts of the mouth.
7. You’re stressed.
Are your mouth and tongue constantly covered in canker sores? That could be a sign that you’re dealing with an excessive amount of anxiety. One 2009 study published in the journal Clinics analyzed 50 patients, 25 of whom had recurring canker sores, and found that those who constantly had them also had higher perceived levels of stress.
8. You’re postmenopausal.
Women both in the midst of and right after menopause tend to experience a condition known as burning mouth syndrome. According to the American Dental Association, having it can feel like “having burned [your] mouth with hot coffee,” and people with the condition can experience other tongue and mouth symptoms like dryness and a tingling or numb sensation.
9. You have a food allergy.
Oral allergy syndrome, more succinctly known as OAS, is a type of allergic reaction that occurs in people who cannot tolerate raw fruits or vegetables. According to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology, one of the telltale signs that someone with OAS is having a reaction is when their tongue—along with their face, lips, mouth, and throat—become swollen and itchy.
10. You’re having a stroke.
In addition to more obvious indications like slurred words and facial paralysis, a crooked tongue that tilts to one side is a sign that someone might be having a stroke. The Pituitary Network Association suggests asking a person to stick out their tongue if you’re worried they might be having a stroke—and if it does appear to be crooked, you should rush them to the hospital for treatment.
11. You’re anemic.
Anemia, often caused by an iron deficiency, has been known to cause tongue-related issues. For instance, a 1999 study published in The American Journal of the Medical Sciences found that the more severe a person’s anemia was, the more tongue pain they had.
12. You have multiple sclerosis.
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, nearly 1 million American adults over the age of 18 live with multiple sclerosis, or MS. That means it’s important to know the signs of MS, including the more uncommon ones. According to MS Focus magazine, these include muscle spasms, nerve pains, and glosso-pharyngeal neuralgia, which is “a severe pain in the tongue, throat, ear, and/or tonsils” that can be triggered by everything from chewing to talking.
13. You have celiac disease.
Most individuals with celiac disease, or a gluten allergy, complain of common symptoms like stomach pain, cramping, and gastrointestinal issues. However, there is another symptom of celiac disease that most people aren’t aware of that has nothing to do with the lower half of the body: a swollen tongue.
Indeed, one 2012 study published in the Journal of Medical Case Reports outlines an instance in which a teenager’s swollen and inflamed tongue alone led to her celiac disease diagnosis.
14. You’re dehydrated.
If you’re not sure you’re drinking enough water every day, you should look at your tongue. According to the Mayo Clinic, dehydration can cause papillae hypertrophy, or an overgrowth of the papillae on your tongue. When swollen, these fingerlike structures trap debris and bacteria and appear as a white coating.
15. You have syphilis.
Dehydration isn’t the only condition associated with the phenomenon known as white tongue. The Mayo Clinic notes that syphilis, an STD that can turn into a serious health issue if left untreated, can also manifest as this same discoloration of the tongue.
16. You have pancreatic cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 56,770 people are expected to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2019. Luckily, doctors can look to a patient’s tongue health to detect this cancer in its early stages. One 2019 study published in the Journal of Oral Microbiology found that patients with early pancreatic cancer had higher levels of certain bacteria on their tongue—including Haemophilius and Leptotrichia—that healthy individuals didn’t.
17. You’re drinking too much.
You can try as hard as you want to hide your boozing habit, but your tongue doesn’t lie. According to the Cleveland Clinic, excessive drinking often leads to leukoplakia, a condition caused by overproduction of cells in the lining of the mouth that results in white patches and white tongue. If you get to the point that your alcohol use is wreaking havoc on your tongue health, then it’s time to seek professional help. And for more ways to drink responsibility, here are 25 Things You Shouldn’t Mix With Alcohol.