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How Your Tongue Helps You Stay Healthy and Tells When You're Sick

Updated on October 13, 2017
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Karla has a degree in health sciences and has written many health articles for her local newspaper.

The Tongue is Bigger Than We Think

The tongue is bigger than we think, and goes part way down the throat.
The tongue is bigger than we think, and goes part way down the throat. | Source

The Anatomy of the Tongue Is Unusual

The tongue is an important but unsung part of the body. It works hard for us every day—every time we speak and every time we eat. It also protects us from bacteria and viruses that may enter our mouths.

It is the only part of the body that has three-dimensional musculature—the muscles run from the sides to the middle, from the front to the back, and from the top to the bottom. They are covered with a thick layer of connective tissue, covered with sensitive papillae, and the surface is protected by a mucous membrane.

The organ has a rich blood supply and is a vital part of the immune system. It is attached to several bones including the lower jawbone, the temporal lobes, and the hyoid bone in the throat. The base does not stop at the mouth but continues part of the way down the throat.

The same set of muscles that anchor the organ also help to keep the hyoid bone suspended, making it the only bone in the body that doesn't touch another bone. The hyoid bone has the tongue and muscles in the throat attached to it. The muscles coordinate together for movements like swallowing and speaking by using the hyoid bone as a firm saddle structure.

Parrots Can Talk Because Their Tongues Are Limber

Parrots use theirs almost as an extra hand, moving food around while the beak removes husks and shells.
Parrots use theirs almost as an extra hand, moving food around while the beak removes husks and shells. | Source

The Tongue Has Many Functions

It works with the throat, teeth, and cheeks to form words. (The reason a parrot can talk even though it has a very different mouth structure is that theirs is limber like ours.) When a person has a slight stroke, it may only show in a temporary slurring of speech, because the nerve signals to the muscles have been impaired. It is so necessary to speech that its name is substituted for language in many phrases, such as "mother tongue" and "tongue-tied".

Where the muscles work very strongly to chew and swallow food, they must be very dexterous, and also make the more delicate movements to perform the sounds of speech.

The organ is more sensitive than the fingertips for touch. Why? Because it gathers information about foods and drinks that we're about to allow into our bodies. That requires a good sense of touch. While you may think that the gag reflex in the back is the most sensitive, the tip is actually the most sensitive to touch.

It not only feels very small particles that may harm us in our food, but it can tell when a small particle is caught in the teeth, and it is limber enough to clean most particles from the teeth. (This may not seem to be the case, but we only really notice particles that it can't clear from our teeth; we don't notice the unconscious work that it does after every meal.)

Of course, the abundant joys that can be derived during intimacy, when the sensitivity is utilized, were discovered long ago - probably before it ever occurred to us to talk or to come in out of the rain by living in caves.

The Taste Buds Are Where You Think They Are

The taste "buds" are mostly in the folds between the papillae
The taste "buds" are mostly in the folds between the papillae | Source

Papillae Have Several Functions

The surface of the organ is rough, partially because the papillae, or bumps, are needed to make surface contact with our food. While we think of the bumps as taste buds, they are really there to help provide friction between the tongue and food, like bumps on a glove are used for gripping. They may have taste sensors on them, but most of the taste sensors are really in the spaces between the papillae and are depressions. The irregular surface area also allows more taste sensors to be in contact with food. This is not only important for pleasure while eating to help maintain the appetite, but it protects us from eating many poisonous or slightly rotten foods.

There are also mechanical papillae, which could be called texture buds because they sense the form and texture of our food. They also anchor the mucus membrane that covers the organ.

While some people have a much stronger sense of taste than others, almost everyone can taste sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory (also known as umami). Some scientists say that fat is the sixth taste that we know.

It used to be thought that certain areas were responsible for detecting certain tastes, but that has been mostly disproven. However, the sides and the tip do have more taste sensation than the middle area.

The organ is also involved in the first round of immune system defense for the body. It is covered with a mucous membrane that protects the mouth. The very back is where the defense cells are located. They are called the lingual tonsil. (The lingual tonsil is not what you think of as the tonsils.

If you stick yours out and look at the back of it next to the throat, the big bumps on the top are together called the lingual tonsil. They are rich in immune cells and are part of the lymphatic tonsillar ring which is made up of the lingual tonsil, the adenoids (also called the pharyngeal tonsils) and the palatine tonsils - what we know as our tonsils. So the organ is part of a very rich and active immune barrier that circles the beginning of the throat.

As it moves, salivary glands underneath are stimulated to produce saliva so the food is moistened and digestion can begin (saliva contains the first digestive enzymes for carbohydrates). When taste bud receptors receive certain taste chemical substances, this also stimulates salivary glands in the mouth, as well as digestive juices in the stomach.

Some Tongues Have More Surface Than Others!

Now that's a tongue with a lot of sublingual surface!
Now that's a tongue with a lot of sublingual surface! | Source

Sublingual - Medicines, Supplements and Vaccines Delivered Under the Tongue

On the underside is a rich blood supply that is very close to the surface. If you look under your own, you will see two blue veins on either side of the lingual frenulum, the strip of tissue that attaches the organ to the floor of the mouth. These surface veins work very well for quick delivery of certain medicines. Otherwise, the medicines would have to deal with stomach acid and their beneficial effect would have to wait for slower absorption via digestion.

If medicines and nutrients that are properly prepared to be absorbed into the blood supply are placed under the tongue, they will be absorbed into these two veins and will be in the bloodstream almost immediately. This absorption into the bloodstream via application underneath is known as sublingual absorption. The most commonly known sublingual application is placing a nitroglycerin pill underneath for chest pain in people with a heart condition. Some vitamins, minerals, and enzymes can also be administered in this way.

Vaccinations are being administered sublingually for some diseases now and may become the norm in the future. By placing vaccinations under the tongue and allowing them to be absorbed into the bloodstream the vaccines can enter them without the pain, additives, preservatives, and possible infection that are normal for an injection.

Sublingual administration is also being chosen as the delivery method when people are being given immunotherapy. For example, if a person is allergic to juniper pollen, a small bit of the allergen is placed under the tongue several times a week. This amount is not enough to cause a noticeable reaction, but enough to slowly, over time, reduce sensitivity to the juniper pollen. This is also an alternative to the current method of injecting immunotherapy allergens.

Not everyone believes that sublingual administration is as effective as injection. The pros and cons are being debated.

When the Doctor Looks at Your Tongue, Let's Hope it's Healthy

While we may have a vague idea that our doctors are looking for signs of health or illness when they want to look at ours, most of us don't know what doctors are looking for. The organ is a great indicator of both overall health and specific health conditions.

Yours should be a healthy pink or whitish pink, not smooth because you have taste buds, but without any growths or swellings on it.

It can be harmlessly stained by food to different colors, and it can even be turned black when you take Pepto-Bismol or other bismuth containing medicines.

It can also be stained by tobacco use, but, as it's also being exposed to carcinogens in the tobacco preparation, that's not harmless.

Do You Have a Burning or a Pale Tongue?

A tongue that is both pale and smooth can indicate that you are anemic or lacking in vitamin B12, or both. If yours, the insides of your eyelids and the bed of your fingernails are pale, you are very probably anemic, and you need iron.

If yours burns a lot at various times during the day, especially after meals, you could have acid reflux.

If you don't have acid reflux, burning tongue, or even burning in the mouth in general is, unfortunately, a pretty common problem. It mostly affects women who are post-menopausal, but it is also found in other people. The cause seems to be unknown. (However, see the note about the cause of geographic tongue below.) Drinking more liquids and chewing gum to keep the mouth moist does help.

If yours is frequently painful and red, but not always, it usually indicates that you are either eating or drinking something (or chewing gum) that irritates it, or you are using a product, such as a new toothpaste or mouthwash that is irritating.

If yours is red and painful constantly, it can indicate a lack of niacin or folic acid. If you are lacking in B vitamins, you might have a very poor diet, or a serious digestive problem that impairs your ability to absorb vitamins and other nutrients, such as undiagnosed celiac disease.

Black Hairy Tongue is Gross but Harmless

A black hairy tongue is loaded with bacteria, but usually resolves itself without treatment.
A black hairy tongue is loaded with bacteria, but usually resolves itself without treatment. | Source

Yellow or Black Hairy Tongue is Caused by Bacteria

If the surface has a yellow coating, this is an early sign of a bacteria growing on it. It may progress to what's known as black, hairy tongue. The projections on the taste buds are made of keratin, the same substance as your hair, and some bacteria can encourage them to grow. If you are taking antibiotics, undergoing chemotherapy, or are otherwise immune-impaired, you may develop a bacterial imbalance in your mouth.

Unless your immune system is very seriously impaired, a little oral hygiene that includes using a scraper to clean yours will usually make this condition disappear over time.

Cute, Cuddly and Canker Sore

After that hairy tongue, I thought you'd like some cute to look at.
After that hairy tongue, I thought you'd like some cute to look at. | Source
And then there's the canker sore. This one is on the lower lip.
And then there's the canker sore. This one is on the lower lip. | Source

Canker Sores and Swollen Taste Buds Happen Occasionally

A canker sore is a small surface ulcer in the mouth. It can be on the inside of the upper or lower lip, on a cheek, on the tongue, or in the roof of the mouth. It may show as a bump or blister before the blister breaks. It's very uncomfortable when chewing or talking.

If you have a canker sore or swollen taste bud, both of these happen occasionally to most people. Some families are even prone to sore tongues and canker sores. However, if the canker sore or swollen taste bud does not go away in about 10 days, see a doctor. It could be a sign of other problems.

Aside from a family tendency to canker sores, other causes of canker sores include; anxiety or stress, loss of sleep, hormonal changes (some women experience them at a specific part of the menstrual cycle), food allergies and sensitivities, using toothpaste that contains sodium lauryl sulfate, or oral trauma, such as injury to the mouth, a rough filling or braces that need adjusting.

Some people confuse canker sores with cold sores and assume that they are both a form of herpes virus. That's not the case. Cold sores are a form of herpes virus, but canker sores are an inflammation that indicates trouble either in the mouth or in other parts of the digestive tract or immune system. Frequent canker sores might indicate other infections, usually bacterial.

More serious causes for recurring canker sores can be a flare-up of Celiac or Crohn disease or a stomach infection of Helicobacter pylori bacteria, which can also cause stomach ulcers and other serious health problems. Antibiotics are used to treat the infection, and as soon as the bacterial infection is cleared up the canker sores will be resolved.

Drugs such as ibuprofen and beta blockers can stimulate canker sores. People with AIDS can tend to get canker sores, because chronic canker sores can also indicate problems with the immune system.

You can also get several canker sores when you quit smoking, because your immune system is still in hyper-drive from having to deal with tobacco toxins for so long.

Other Conditions can be the Cause of Whitish Spots or a White Film

Several other whitish spots or or a white film can appear on the organ. A very thin, white film may appear often on the top of your taste buds, and can be brushed away or removed with a scraper, which should be a normal part of oral health. This usually indicates a dry mouth, or that you have slept with your mouth open. The dry mouth can be also be caused by breathing through the mouth or by taking certain medications.

However, a more persistent white film that is not only on the organ, but may also be on the inside of the cheeks may be Thrush, a fungal infection. While a person who practices good dental health and who is not immune compromised doesn't usually get Thrush, occasionally taking antibiotics may disrupt the balance of beneficial organisms in the mouth and allow Thrush to thrive. Babies and people who have compromised immune systems are more prone to thrush, even with good oral hygiene.

If you have a persistent white patch on the side or underneath, especially if you either smoke or use smokeless tobacco, you should have the white patch examined by a doctor. It could be a sign of early mouth cancer. It is especially important to have suspect patches in the mouth checked, as the organ is so closely involved with the immune system, and oral cancer could spread easily.

Geographic Tongue

Geographic tongue shows a chronic inability to replace all of the coating and to keep the papillae in good condition.
Geographic tongue shows a chronic inability to replace all of the coating and to keep the papillae in good condition. | Source

What Causes Geographic Tongue?

This condition means the organ has some areas that are red and tender, at the same time that certain other areas are whitish.

The red and white patches seem to migrate around. This is because it renews it's tissue about every 7-10 days, and while it's healing one spot, another bad spot is developing. Modern medicine considers this to have an unknown cause. (However, my opinion is that the person should be looking at allergies, sensitivities and autoimmune reactions caused by diet. Just my opinion, considering the bad record modern medicine has regarding health problems caused by diet.)

Don't let it get you down. Just keep your mouth clean and watch your health.
Don't let it get you down. Just keep your mouth clean and watch your health. | Source

The Tongue Talks When Your Health is Losing Ground

There are other conditions, but these are the most common.

Some conditions can be avoided by practicing good oral hygiene, which includes using a scraper at least once daily. The organ is an indicator that your body is either healthy or unhealthy, and will show you that you are missing nutrients, under excessive stress, exhausted, or have a medical condition.

It is the canary in your coal mine, but this canary sings when things are going wrong.

How to Use a Tongue Scraper

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    • Healthy Pursuits profile image
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      Karla Iverson 11 months ago from Oregon

      Thank you, Glenn. I was off HP for a while, but now am back. I'm glad you enjoyed the article.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 11 months ago from Long Island, NY

      Very informative article Karla. I never realized so much can be discovered by examining the tongue. All this time I thought doctors simply were looking to see if one has a cold, but so many diseases can be discovered from the tongue. That's good to know.

      I also found your explanation of the anatomy of the tongue very interesting. There is so much more to it than people realize. You are indeed a wealth of information.

    • profile image

      Tony 3 years ago

      This is an excellent article. Full praise to the author

    • Healthy Pursuits profile image
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      Karla Iverson 3 years ago from Oregon

      Thank you, achapin3! As you obviously love to do health research, so do I. It's fascinating what a little observation can tell you.

    • profile image

      achapin3 3 years ago

      I found this article to be very interesting. I have been an emergency RN for about 4 years and I am always seeking new and interesting health information. I recently read a book on Iridology ( Study of the iris) for signs of disease. Awesome article !!!

    • Healthy Pursuits profile image
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      Karla Iverson 3 years ago from Oregon

      That's where we need to be assertive with our doctors. We are the paying customers, and they need to provide us with the services that we pay for. However, few of us have the assertiveness to overcome our awe of the incredible skills that we have been convinced that they have. Yes, they have done a ton of schooling and training. And yes, they see a lot every day. However, they are human and flawed, just as we are. And we ARE paying for the service.

    • profile image

      Wayne 3 years ago

      Hi, im 23. . . Thanks for the reply. I understand, but most doctors would not even consider giving advice as it is "normal" to have a cracked tongue. I have not had any symptoms since being careful which is great. My dad was diagnosed celiac last year, he is 52

    • Healthy Pursuits profile image
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      Karla Iverson 3 years ago from Oregon

      If you've been diagnosed with celiac disease, congratulations! Sometimes it can take forever to get diagnosed. You don't say how old you are, but I've read that as people age, some become more and more sensitive to gluten. I also have celiac disease. In my case it took 49 years to be diagnosed, My mother had it and was never diagnosed. I went on the diet approved by my doctor, and it provided almost no relief from the symptoms. Then I looked into other celiac diet options and found a book by Elaine Gottschall called "Breaking the Vicious Cycle". I wasn't overly impressed with the book, because it contains a lot of hype. However, Dr. Gottschall used this diet in the early 1950s when her daughter was unresponsive to the approved celiac diet. So I tried it, and was very happy to learn that I could live well without celiac symptoms. By-the-way, I have also since found teff and quinoia, both are very small grains which work well on this more restrictive diet and I do a sour dough mix with the teff that provides great crepes (think soft taco shell) and pancakes.

      While I had many symptoms, I've not heard of anyone having a pale, bluish tongue. So, if you don't see any improvement in your tongue, I suggest that you go back to your doctor and request both a full thyroid panel and a cardiac stress test. While I'm discussing this with you, please understand that I'm not at all a doctor.

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      wayne 3 years ago

      Great article, I have a cracked tongue that is pale in colour (blueish), it appeared two years ago and im at my wits end now. I have recently found out im celeaic so been gluten free for 3 weeks. I clean with a tongue with a scrapper, Try not to use mouthwash as it stains, the papalie on my tongue are slightly hairyier than normal :-( please help

    • Healthy Pursuits profile image
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      Karla Iverson 4 years ago from Oregon

      Thanks for the great info, Carrie. Instead of throwing out my toothbrush, I pour a half glass of pure vinegar and put the brush in it overnight. Then rinse the brush and use it. Vinegar is better at killing bacteria and viruses than alcohol is. About canker sores, other causes of canker sores include emotional stress and lack of certain vitamins and minerals, namely folic acid, vitamin B-12 and iron. Hope that's helpful.

    • carrie Lee Night profile image

      Kept private 4 years ago from Northeast United States

      A very interesting and well written article. Who would of thought the tongue would get this much action ! :) One thing to add about canker sores on the mouth and tongue...I used to get them a lot, I mean a really a lot like one a week. Once one healed another one would pop up and they were very painful (Tongue ones were the worst). I discovered that my toothpaste was the culprit...I was senstitive to the sodium fluoride thus cause my mouth to dry and be varnible to virus/bacteria etc. Now I use Stannous Fluoride based toothpaste and get canker sores much less. Also it should be known to change your toothbrush about once a month, I find waiting longer than that...too much build up of bacteria on the toothbrush. Thanks again for this hub. Have a wonderful week.

    • Healthy Pursuits profile image
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      Karla Iverson 4 years ago from Oregon

      Thank you, phoenix2327. I enjoyed finding out about it when I was doing the research, too.

    • phoenix2327 profile image

      Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon 4 years ago from United Kingdom

      Fantastic hub. I never realised what an unsung hero the tongue is.

    • Healthy Pursuits profile image
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      Karla Iverson 4 years ago from Oregon

      Thanks for stopping by, reading and commenting, marion.

    • marion langley profile image

      marion langley 4 years ago from The Study

      I had no idea!

    • Healthy Pursuits profile image
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      Karla Iverson 4 years ago from Oregon

      Thank you, Carl8033, for your great response to my hub.

    • Carl8033 profile image

      Alexander Okelo 4 years ago

      Wow, that is some great information on tongues, I actually never thought much about it until now. You have thought me a lot today. Thank you healthy pursuits.

    • Healthy Pursuits profile image
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      Karla Iverson 4 years ago from Oregon

      Thank you, Alecia. I was fascinated when I did the research on this how there is a complete circle around the opening to the throat that protects against invasive germs. The tongue plays a powerful part of that, and we don't ever think about it.

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 4 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      You don't really think about your tongue that much but reading this it makes me realize how important it is. Great hub!

    • Healthy Pursuits profile image
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      Karla Iverson 4 years ago from Oregon

      Thank you, iguidenetwork! I'm glad you liked it.

    • iguidenetwork profile image

      iguidenetwork 4 years ago from Austin, TX

      Fantastic hub! Most of us take the tongue for granted but you really show in this hub about the tongue's importance. Up and useful.

    • Healthy Pursuits profile image
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      Karla Iverson 4 years ago from Oregon

      Wow! Wonderful praise, maximioum! Thank you.

    • Healthy Pursuits profile image
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      Karla Iverson 4 years ago from Oregon

      Thank you lengchai.

    • maximioum profile image

      maximioum 4 years ago from Spain

      This was one of the greatest hub I read. thanks for it. I voted up and pressed awesome.

    • Healthy Pursuits profile image
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      Karla Iverson 4 years ago from Oregon

      That's interesting, ryanhoe. It's amazing how different each of our bodies are, while at the same time they have so much in common. Sometimes when I'm starting to get a cold or flu, my sense of taste will change temporarily, too. Thanks for stopping by.

    • ryanjhoe profile image

      ryanjhoe 4 years ago from Somewhere over the rainbow

      Interesting article. Sometimes when I feel sick my tongue taste different even before I take any medicine. You open my insight about this.

    • Healthy Pursuits profile image
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      Karla Iverson 4 years ago from Oregon

      Thank you, Kris. I loved doing the research on it. I found out a lot about the tongue that I didn't know before.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 4 years ago from Indiana

      This is a very well researched article - nice job! As a geeky scientist, I love these kinds of hubs. I enjoyed the photos too - love the Albert Einstein one, that's a classic!

    • Healthy Pursuits profile image
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      Karla Iverson 4 years ago from Oregon

      Yes, chayajennie, I agree. Some tongues are too well exercised! Thank you for stopping by, and for commenting.

    • chayajennie profile image

      chayajennie 4 years ago from Sandiego

      Tongue has lot of things to say about our health, great hub in lighter vein tongue also has lot to say if it involves in talking too much!!

    • Healthy Pursuits profile image
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      Karla Iverson 4 years ago from Oregon

      I was fascinated by how little I knew, too, Dontei, when I started doing the research for this hub. Thanks for stopping by and for the nice compliment.

    • Dontei profile image

      Michael 4 years ago

      Great hub, I learned a lot about the tongue that I never would have otherwise. Strange that I was so uneducated on such an vital part of my own body.

    • Healthy Pursuits profile image
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      Karla Iverson 5 years ago from Oregon

      Thank you, RavenBiker. I know what you mean. After I did the background for this, I decided that I should have a new appreciation for my tongue as guardian and tattletale. :)

    • RavenBiker profile image

      RavenBiker 5 years ago from Pittsburgh, PA.

      Wow! Thanks for the hub! I'll never stick out my tongue the same way again! Marked it interesting and useful.

    • Healthy Pursuits profile image
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      Karla Iverson 5 years ago from Oregon

      Thank you, Mombaxxx1. This was a very interesting article to research and write. It's such a big topic.

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      Mombaxxx1 5 years ago from Oregon

      I, too, checked my tongue before writing this...and it seems I'm healthy. Thanks for another in-depth article about how our bodies speak to us and help keep us at the top of our bodily efficiency. I enjoy your writing style and sharing of your wealth of information.

    • Healthy Pursuits profile image
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      Karla Iverson 5 years ago from Oregon

      Thank you, healthylife2. I was fascinated, too, that the underside of the tongue is so close to the bloodstream when the rest of it is so loaded with immune protection. The design of the body is so surprising.

    • healthylife2 profile image

      Healthy Life 5 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      Found this completely fascinating. I had to go look at my tongue to make sure I am healthy. I have heard that putting asprin that dissolves under the tongue can help a person during a heart attack and found your explanation helpful that when put under the tongue it goes immediately into the bloodstream.Voted up!

    • Healthy Pursuits profile image
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      Karla Iverson 5 years ago from Oregon

      Thanks, elle64. I know what you mean.

    • elle64 profile image

      elle64 5 years ago from Scandinavia

      What an infomative hub, I better start claning my tongue

    • Healthy Pursuits profile image
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      Karla Iverson 5 years ago from Oregon

      Thank you, Pamela99. I enjoyed doing research for this hub, because I learned a bunch of information that I "kind of" knew, but hadn't really thought about.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 5 years ago from United States

      What a wealth of information about the tongue! This is really an outstanding article and I learned many things I didn't know. I like the emphasis you put on good oral hygiene also. Voted up and useful.

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      Karla Iverson 5 years ago from Oregon

      Thanks for the kind comment, Rosalinem.

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      Rosalinem 5 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

      You have put so much work in this one and you have explained it so well.Voted it up, awesome and useful.

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      Karla Iverson 5 years ago from Oregon

      Thank you, Rebecca! I'm glad you liked it.

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 5 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Coolest Hub I've seen in a while! Voted up, interesting and shared. So much information condensed into a tiny topic, the tongue.