Speaking in Tongues (Oral Health)

Beware the black hairy tongue, and other nasties.

The tongue is an important part of our body. It not only helps us to chew and swallow our food, it also helps us to talk. The health and appearance of our tongue can also be an indicator of our overall health.

The tongue consists predominately of muscle, and is covered with a mucous membrane. Small bumps, known as papillae, cover the upper surface of the tongue. Between these papillae are taste buds, which give us our sense of taste.

Tongue disorders include:

Geographic Tongue
Geographic tongue, also known as benign migratory glossitis, is a condition characterised by irregular and inflamed patches on the tongue surface that often have white borders. The tongue may be generally swollen, red and sore. It’s not known what causes geographic tongue, but risk factors include:

Mineral or vitamin deficiencies;
Local irritants, such as strong mouthwashes, cigarettes or alcohol;
Certain medications; and

Black hairy tongue
This particularly unpleasant-sounding condition causes the tongue surface to appear black, dark yellow, brown, green or white.

The papillae on your tongue are constantly renewing themselves. Usually, the old cells are shed as the new cells emerge. Black hairy tongue occurs when the old cells fail to shed. This overgrowth traps food and bacteria, which creates the characteristic dark “coat” on the tongue’s surface. The “hairy” part of it comes from the furry appearance caused by unshed papillae. Once again, the cause isn’t known, but risk factors include:

Poor oral hygiene (such as not brushing and flossing regularly)
Cigarette smoking
Some antibiotics
Chemotherapy and radiation treatment for cancers of the head and neck
Poorly managed diabetes.

The main symptom of glossodynia is a burning sensation on the tongue. Causes include:
Local infections, such as oral thrush
Nerve damage
Cigarette smoking
Vitamin deficiencies
Some medications, such as diuretics and some blood pressure drugs.

Loss of taste
Problems with the tongue can affect our sense of taste. This can be a result of damage to the taste buds, nerve damage, side-effects of medications and infection.

Difficulty in moving the tongue can be caused by nerve damage or what is referred to as tongue-tie (ankyloglossia), This is a disorder where the tissue that attaches the tongue to the floor of the mouth, called the frenum or frenulum, is too short.

Other problems
The tongue can also be a site of oral cancer, mouth ulcers and leukoplakia (the formation of white patches on the tongue or cheek. These are often pre-malignant. So make sure you keep an eye on the health of your tongue. If you notice any of symptoms or changes to your tongue, always see your doctor.

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