Close-up of a woman getting her tongue health checked

Have you ever noticed your dentist asks you to move your tongue around during a dental examination?

You may have thought it’s only to inspect your teeth, but it’s also to check your tongue.

Why?

Short answer:

Your tongue plays an essential role in tasting, chewing, swallowing, and speaking. You don’t want that impaired, right? Of course not!

But your tongue also tells the story of what’s going on in your oral and overall health.

Keep reading as we break down tongue health and what you need to know.

What exactly is the tongue?

A tongue is an important digestive organ located in your mouth. It forms the major part of the mouth floor between the lower arch of teeth located in the lower jaw or mandible.

A tongue consists of eight separate muscles and is covered with a mucous membrane and taste buds.

Its primary function is to facilitate the movement of food while chewing and swallowing.

But it’s also essential for taste and speech.

What happens when a tongue is unhealthy?

An unhealthy tongue can have a variety of problems associated with it.

Many tongue problems include:

  • Lumps, sores, or ulcerated areas
  • Burning sensation or tender feeling
  • General color changes of various types from white to black
  • Texture changes that are bumpy, smooth, or have grooves
  • Hairy or fuzzy appearance
  • Itching, scaling, or bleeding
  • Irregular movement or control problems
  • Pain or soreness
  • Patches or spots with color changes that can be red or white
  • Bumps, patches, or spots with texture changes that are smooth, raised, or irregular
  • Swollen, enlarged, or bloated tongue
  • Taste problems
  • Tremors or twitching occurrences

What causes tongue problems?

Many causes lead to problems, disorders, and diseases of the tongue. Among these causes are infections, inflammation, allergies, family genetics, metabolic problems, and nutritional deficiencies.

Problems of the tongue can be short term or chronic in nature.

Since any tongue symptom can be a sign of a serious disease or condition, you should seek prompt medical care.

Why dentists check your tongue

The primary reason:

Cancer!

Even though tongue cancer is rare compared to other types of cancer, it’s steadily on the rise… This text opens a new tab to a page on tongue cancer…!

Other reasons include infections and disease.

What causes tongue cancer?

Tongue cancer happens when cells in the tongue grow abnormally and form a cancerous growth, tumor, or lesion.

If the cancer forms in the front 2/3 of the tongue (the part you can stick out), it’s considered a type of oral cavity cancer. Whereas if the cancer forms in the back, it’s a type of oropharyngeal or throat cancer.

What’s the survival rate of tongue cancer?

The prognosis for tongue cancer treatment is related to the tumor’s size at the time of detection.

The 5-year relative survival rate is 67.1%.

But as it worsens, so does the survival rate.

For example, if the cancer spreads and metastasizes, that survival rate drops to 39.8%.

Prompt treatment is important because tongue cancer can spread rapidly to nearby areas, such as the mouth, throat, neck, jaws, and lymph nodes.

How do dentists screen for tongue cancer and health?

Most dentists use their trained eye for a visual examination of your tongue during your regular six-month dental visits.

They’ll look for unusual symptoms and irregularities, like bumps, color, and texture.

At Brookside Dental, we take it a step further with modern technology.

As part of our oral cancer screenings with VELscope technology, we also check for tongue cancer warning signs.

This screening emits a harmless blue light to highlight abnormal tissue. If found, we’ll work with you and your primary care provider to seek a diagnosis and possible treatment.

Click here to learn more about VELscope.

We also spend time at each appointment addressing any concerns you have, including tongue problems like an irritated area that won’t heal or any sores or bumps that enlarge or won’t go away.

How to check your tongue at home

In between your dental visits, you should check your tongue regularly.

How?

Look in a mirror and lift your tongue in all directions to inspect the top, bottom, and sides.

What should you be looking for?

  • Changes in color
  • White or red patches
  • Sores
  • Bleeding
  • Bumps
  • Texture changes
  • Any unusual signs

If your symptoms persist for more than two weeks or cause you pain, contact your dentist or doctor for an exam ASAP.

Another tip:

Clean your tongue regularly!

Use a tongue scraper, toothbrush, or rinse with mouthwash.

Have questions about healthy tongues?

Contact our Bellevue dentists, Dr. Corie Vitkovic and Dr. Steven Kitts.

We’re experts in all things oral health, your tongue included!

Plus, we cover all your dental needs under one convenient roof to make your life easier.

Call Us: 425-643-2818

Or you can:

Our office is located in Bellevue, WA… opens in a new window to Google Maps…, and proudly serves surrounding communities in Seattle, Kirkland, Renton, Woodinville, Issaquah, Redmond, and Sammamish.


Editor’s note: This post was originally published in 2011 and has been completely revamped for comprehensiveness and timeliness. Please remember the information here is not a substitute for reliable and prompt medical attention, diagnosis, and treatment.