6 Common Tongue Problems: Causes and Symptoms

Updated on April 3, 2018
Annette R. Smith profile image

Smith is a content writer in Orlando, Florida. She researches and writes about health, green living, and other topics.

Is Your Tongue Healthy?

Is your tongue sore, painful, or swollen? Has it recently changed in size, color, or appearance? Does the condition of your tongue cause frustration and discomfort?

A painful or sore tongue can be common. A minor infection or injury, such as biting your tongue, is the most likely cause. Most tongue irritations are harmless and resolve on their own. In some cases, however, a tongue problem may indicate a serious medical condition, such as a vitamin deficiency, oral cancer, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

For this reason, it is always a good idea to see a doctor or dentist if your painful sore tongue is an ongoing problem. In this article, we will discuss six tongue conditions and their likely causes.

6 Common Tongue Problems

  1. Painful, sore tongue
  2. Strawberry tongue
  3. White tongue
  4. Yellow tongue
  5. Black, hairy tongue
  6. Geographic tongue

Diagram of human tongue anatomy—including various types of papillae and the taste bud.
Diagram of human tongue anatomy—including various types of papillae and the taste bud. | Source

Human Tongue Anatomy

You may think your tongue is a single muscle. In fact, it is often called "the strongest muscle in the body." But your tongue is actually a group of muscles that allow you to taste, chew, and swallow food. These muscles also help you form words so you can talk.

Your tongue contains a moist tissue lining called a mucous membrane. Underneath, small nodules or papillae cover the upper surface. Your taste buds—which number about 9,000—are scattered between the papillae.

A healthy tongue is smooth, moist, and pink. Many things can change its appearance and function. A discolored or sore tongue may indicate a problem with the tongue itself, or it may signal a health problem elsewhere.

An image of a healthy human tongue.
An image of a healthy human tongue. | Source

1. Painful and Sore Tongue

Do you have a painful, sore tongue? Trauma from biting your tongue and scalding from hot foods or beverages are the most likely causes.

Possible Causes of a Painful or Sore Tongue:

  • Habitual teeth grinding
  • Excessive smoking
  • Inflamed taste buds
    • Inflammation can cause tiny, painful bumps to form along the length of your tongue.
  • Stress
    • This commonly results in canker sores, and although the cause of mouth ulcers is still unclear, stress is believed to be a contributing factor.
  • Burning tongue syndrome (burning mouth syndrome)
    • Burning tongue syndrome is a common menopause symptom. The painful, burning sensations can affect the tongue, gums, lips, and other parts of the mouth.
  • Chronic health conditions
    • Anemia, diabetes, and even oral cancer can lead to persistent, painful bumps or sores on the tongue and in the mouth. Early detection is important for successful treatment.

Ask your doctor or dentist for an oral cancer screening if you notice any of the early warning signs, especially when the problems are persistent.

Toxic shock syndrome and strawberry tongue.
Toxic shock syndrome and strawberry tongue. | Source

2. Strawberry Tongue

A strawberry tongue is named for its appearance: large taste buds dot the surface of the tongue. Many things can turn a healthy, pink tongue into a bright, red one that resembles a strawberry.

Possible Causes of Strawberry Tongue

  • Vitamin deficiency
    • This is the most common cause of strawberry tongue. Your tongue may look red if your body is not getting enough vitamin B9 (folic acid), vitamin B12 (cobalamin), or other B complex vitamins. These nutrients help your body convert carbohydrates into energy.
  • Kawasaki syndrome
    • This is a rare childhood disease that affects the blood vessels, causes red skin rashes and a strawberry tongue. While the symptoms may scare parents, they can be treated easily with medications.
  • Scarlet fever
    • Once a much-feared childhood illness resulting from a streptococcal infection, it also produces a strawberry tongue. The illness is uncommon today, and antibiotics can treat the fever and reduce the symptoms.

White tongue caused by oral lichen planus.
White tongue caused by oral lichen planus. | Source

3. White Tongue

Is your tongue covered with white spots or a white coating? Many things can cause a white tongue, from yeast infections to medications to leukoplakia.

Possible Causes of White Tongue

  • Leukoplakia
    • Common in tobacco users, leukoplakia causes excessive cell growth on the tongue, resulting in white patches. While it is not dangerous on its own, leukoplakia can be a precursor to oral cancer.
  • Candidiasis
    • Also called oral thrush, candidiasis is a yeast infection that results in white tongue patches with a "cottage cheese" consistency. Oral thrush is most common in babies and elderly adults. It may also affect people with diabetes, asthma, or lung disease.
  • Oral lichen planus
    • Although the exact causes are unclear, tobacco use and poor dental hygiene contribute to the development of raised, lace-like white lines along the tongue.

Maintain Good Oral Hygiene

Regularly rinsing, flossing, and brushing your teeth, gums, and tongue keep your mouth healthy—not to mention refreshing.

4. Yellow Tongue

Does the surface of your tongue look yellow? A yellow tongue may indicate jaundice, a skin-yellowing condition that points to a gallbladder or liver problem. However, a yellow tongue is usually harmless and temporary.

Changes to papillae on the surface of the tongue cause the yellow color. Enlarged nodes combine with mouth bacteria to produce yellow pigments on the tongue.

Good oral hygiene is the best treatment for a yellow tongue. Without proper care, the condition can develop into a black, hairy tongue (see the next section).

Black hairy tongue caused by tobacco use.
Black hairy tongue caused by tobacco use. | Source

5. Black, Hairy Tongue

Despite its startling appearance, a black, hairy tongue is another harmless condition that involves the papillae.

Papillae grow on your tongue throughout your life. Daily mouth activities usually wear them down and keep them short.

Some tongues, however, have long papillae that normal activities cannot wear down. The overgrown nodes are more likely to harbor bacteria and give the tongue a hairy appearance.

Tobacco products, improper use of antibiotics, and cancer drugs contribute to a black, hairy tongue. Good oral hygiene usually resolves the problem without the need for medical treatment.

An image of a geographic tongue.
An image of a geographic tongue. | Source

6. Geographic Tongue

Is your tongue missing papillae? Does it have smooth, red patches with raised borders? You may have geographic tongue.

Geographic tongue is named because of the map-like appearance that forms. As one raised patch heals, the problem moves to a different part of the tongue. This causes your tongue's "landscape" to change frequently.

A geographic tongue may be sensitive to certain substances, but the condition is harmless. It is not linked to infection or cancer.

The cause of geographic tongue is unclear, but genetics may play a role in its development. The condition may persist for months or even years, but eventually, it will resolve on its own.

Your Turn

What does your tongue say about your health? Leave a comment below and join the conversation.

Medical Disclaimer

The information presented in this article is not intended as medical advice, nor is it a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment by a qualified medical professional.

References

  • National Institutes of Health. (February 20, 2012). Tongue Disorders. National Library of Medicine / Medline Plus. Retrieved April 30, 2012.
  • UMMC. (2012). Tongue Problems Overview. University of Maryland Medical Center. Retrieved April 27, 2012.
  • Wyatt, Alfred D. Jr. (March 7, 2011). Tongue Problem Basics. WebMD Medical Reference. Retrieved April 27, 2012.

© 2012 Annette R. Smith

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    • Annette R. Smith profile image
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      Annette R. Smith 2 months ago from Grand Island, Florida

      Thank you, Saniya. Glad you liked it!

    • Saaniya Aamir profile image

      Saniya Aamir 2 months ago from Karachi

      Nice article!

    • Annette R. Smith profile image
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      Annette R. Smith 2 years ago from Grand Island, Florida

      Hi, Terrie. Thank you for reading my article and sharing your experience with us. Wow! I can't imagine the pain you're suffering from those tongue irritations. I hope one of the doctors will diagnose the problem soon. Does anyone have any thoughts or suggestions for Terrie?

    • profile image

      Terrie Hamilton 2 years ago

      I believe I have burning mouth/tongue disorder and have been to several doctors with no results. My tongue also looks like the grand canyon with many and deep crevices. Occasionally I get holes in the sides of my mouth that start small but increase in size and are quite painful. I cannot tolerate acidity or spicy foods because my mouth feels like it's on fire. Any help would be appreciated.

    • Annette R. Smith profile image
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      Annette R. Smith 4 years ago from Grand Island, Florida

      Hello, Mary. Black hairy tongue is caused by bacteria or fungi in the mouth. It is often seen in people who use tobacco products, or those with bad oral hygiene. A doctor or dentist can identify tongue concerns and recommend treatment. Thanks for reading my article!

    • profile image

      Mary-19 4 years ago

      my relative is 4 n half year old girl,she has a black bump about 1/2 cm in middle of her tongue which was never seen before( dont know how long its been there)

      What could be the reason? Is ot "black hairy tongue"symptom?

      In "black hairy tongue" problem are hairs seen or its just a bump ?

    • Annette R. Smith profile image
      Author

      Annette R. Smith 4 years ago from Grand Island, Florida

      Greetings, olta hadushaj. I am sorry to hear about your painful sore tongue. Many things can cause tongue pain, and your doctor or dentist can recommend a helpful treatment. Feel better soon!

    • profile image

      olta hadushaj 4 years ago

      i have the same problem with the tongue of photo of Painful Sore Tongue, what should i do to recover?

    • Annette R. Smith profile image
      Author

      Annette R. Smith 4 years ago from Grand Island, Florida

      Hello, Alex. From what I've read and heard, black hairy tongue is a fairly common tongue problem. It seems to be more common in men, especially those who use tobacco, drink a lot of coffee, or practice poor oral hygiene.

    • mercuryservices profile image

      Alex Munkachy 4 years ago from Honolulu, Hawaii

      Harmless perhaps, but how common is a black, hairy tongue really?

    • Annette R. Smith profile image
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      Annette R. Smith 5 years ago from Grand Island, Florida

      Thank you for stopping by, Kevin. I'm glad you learned some new terms! I think black hairy tongue is more common in people who dip snuff. Not long ago, it was depicted in a television commercial about the dangers of smokeless tobacco.

    • Annette R. Smith profile image
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      Annette R. Smith 5 years ago from Grand Island, Florida

      Hello, mikielikie. Thanks for the compliment! I'm glad you enjoyed the hub.

    • Kevin Peter profile image

      Kevin Peter 5 years ago from Global Citizen

      Strawberry tongue and black hairy tongue are all new words for me. The pictures included in the hub helps in understanding the real meaning of these words. I dont think that these problems are common. But the detailed explanation you have provided for each type is very interesting. Great hub!

    • mikielikie profile image

      mikielikie 5 years ago from Texas

      Great hub!! I have a geographic tongue.

    • Annette R. Smith profile image
      Author

      Annette R. Smith 5 years ago from Grand Island, Florida

      @smallbizloandepot: Thank you for reading "6 Common Tongue Problems." I appreciate the comment!

    • smallbizloandepot profile image

      smallbizloandepot 5 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      great info. i just learned something new reading this.

    • Annette R. Smith profile image
      Author

      Annette R. Smith 5 years ago from Grand Island, Florida

      Hello, Frank. Thank you for reading my oral health article. I pray that your biopsy results are good. Blessings to you!

    • Annette R. Smith profile image
      Author

      Annette R. Smith 5 years ago from Grand Island, Florida

      Today is World Oral Health Day. Celebrate by taking care of your teeth, gums, mouth, and tongue!

    • FSlovenec profile image

      Frank Slovenec 5 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Good article just had the second biopsy on my tongue ...looking forward to the results...thanks

    • Annette R. Smith profile image
      Author

      Annette R. Smith 5 years ago from Grand Island, Florida

      Thank you for reading my article, Sherrell. A sore, painful tongue is no fun! I hope your problem is resolved soon.

    • profile image

      sherrell l 5 years ago

      My togue Stay sour

    • Annette R. Smith profile image
      Author

      Annette R. Smith 5 years ago from Grand Island, Florida

      Hello, Sarah. Thank you for sharing your story with us. Your tip about baking soda toothpaste is a good one, and I'm glad to hear that it cleared up your problem with chronic thrush. Sometimes the simple solutions really are the best ones!

    • profile image

      SaritaJBonita 5 years ago

      I suffered from chronic thrush for quite awhile due to long-term antibiotic use. I got tired of using the swish and swallow medicine four times a day, and was finally referred to an ear nose and throat specialist.

      His advice was simple. Switch to a baking soda toothpaste. When you think you're getting a bit of thrush, make a paste with a few spoonfuls of baking soda and water, and swish it around for awhile, then spit it out.

      Apparently the baking soda changes the pH of your mouth, because yeast thrives in an acidic environment. The baking soda "starves" the yeast from nutrients and the thrush cannot flourish.

      Haven't had a case of thrush since then!

    • Annette R. Smith profile image
      Author

      Annette R. Smith 5 years ago from Grand Island, Florida

      Thank you, Chaz. I appreciate your read, comment and the votes up!

    • iguidenetwork profile image

      iguidenetwork 5 years ago from Austin, TX

      That black hairy tongue looks quite scary! But I'm glad that those all ailments can be treated easily. Thanks for posting. Voted up, useful and interesting.

    • Annette R. Smith profile image
      Author

      Annette R. Smith 5 years ago from Grand Island, Florida

      It's good to meet you, Oscarlites. Thank you for stopping by, and for giving my hub a thumbs up. I hope your Christmas was blessed!

    • Oscarlites profile image

      Oscar Jones 5 years ago from South Alabama

      Hmm.. ok I'm taking notes here. but yes, its important to take care of your tongue and know what's going on in there! Great hub!

    • Annette R. Smith profile image
      Author

      Annette R. Smith 5 years ago from Grand Island, Florida

      Hello, Chris! This IS an interesting subject, isn't it? Thanks for stopping by and sharing a word. I'll be sure to check out your hub on dental hygiene.

    • profile image

      Chris Hugh 5 years ago

      Wow, I never knew tongues could be so interesting. I used to have geographic tongue, but now that I use an Orabrush, it's gone. I wrote a whole Hub on dental hygiene.

      Black hair tongue is strangely compelling. I almost wish I had it so that I could cure it with my Orabrush. I am sort of a strange.

    • Annette R. Smith profile image
      Author

      Annette R. Smith 6 years ago from Grand Island, Florida

      You're welcome, Penlady. Thank you for reading my article on common tongue problems and sharing the link on Twitter. You're the best!

    • penlady profile image

      penlady 6 years ago from Sacramento, CA

      Wow! This is very informative, especially the information on black tongue. So much can go on with the body.

      Thanks for this hub!

    • Annette R. Smith profile image
      Author

      Annette R. Smith 6 years ago from Grand Island, Florida

      Hello, Francesca27. What a pleasure to meet you! Thank you for reading my article on common tongue problems, and for leaving a comment too.

    • Francesca27 profile image

      Francesca27 6 years ago from Hub Page

      What great information you've shared with us. Thank you so much for writing this hub.

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