girl smiling after treatment for tongue disease

Tongue Disease 101: Signs, Causes, Types And Treatment

Your tongue might not be that big, but it's got some major responsibilities. Without your tongue, eating and speaking would be tricky, for example. The condition your of your tongue also affects your ability to breathe and may influence how pleasant (or unpleasant) your breath smells. Sometimes, things can happen to the tongue that affect its ability to do its job well. Tongue disease can take many forms, and although it sometimes occurs as a result of an infection, that's not the only factor behind it.

Signs of a Tongue Problem

As the National Institutes of Health (NIH) points out, tongue problems can take many forms and can have a variety of symptoms. One common sign of a tongue problem or disease is pain in the area. A person's ability to taste foods can also be affected when something is wrong with the tongue. The tongue might also swell, change color, or have changes in its texture. In some cases, people with tongue problems have difficulty moving their tongue, which can make speaking and eating difficult. Bad breath is also occasionally a sign of tongue trouble.

Causes of Tongue Disease

A variety of factors can cause a problem with the tongue. The cause of a tongue disorder usually determines how long the problem lasts and how easy it is to treat. For example, tongue infections, caused by bacteria or fungus, usually clear up after a course of antibiotics or antifungal medicines. Problems caused by a nutritional deficiency, such as anemia tongue, usually clear up when the deficiency is resolved. A few other common causes of tongue problems and disease include dietary choices, cancer, nerve damage, autoimmune disorders, trauma to the tongue (like biting it) and hormonal changes.

Types of Tongue Disease

  • Thrush. A type of yeast infection, thrush leads to the development of bumpy white patches on the tongue.
  • Burning mouth syndrome. The exact cause of burning mouth syndrome, which creates a burning sensation on the tongue and other areas of the mouth, isn't known. It might be caused by nerve damage, allergies, nutritional deficiencies or hormonal changes.
  • Black hairy tongue. Black hairy tongue is usually more of a cosmetic problem than a medical one. People with the condition don't shed the dead tongue cells from the top of the tongue, leading to buildup, according to the Mayo Clinic. After a while, the tongue looks like it has a coating of dark hair on top. This issue can develop after a person takes a course of antibiotics or as a result of a diet made up of soft foods that don't scrub the surface of the tongue.
  • Oral cancer. Some types of oral cancers develop on the tongue. Symptoms of tongue cancer can include pain in the tongue, a spot that forms on the tongue and difficulty moving the tongue or jaw.
  • Glossitis. Glossitis is swelling of the tongue. In some cases, it is a sign of another tongue problem, such as thrush. In other cases, it's its own issue. Geographic tongue, which the NIHnotes makes the surface of the tongue look like that of a map, is an example of glossitis.

Treating Tongue Disease

Treatment for tongue diseases depends on the type of problem and its cause. For example, oral thrush is usually treated with an antifungal medication, often in liquid form. Correcting a nutritional problem or changing your diet might help treat burning mouth syndrome. Black hairy tongue can be remedied with improved oral hygiene, such as by brushing with a Colgate Triple Action toothbrush, which has a tongue cleaner to remove odor-causing bacteria. Treating cancer of the tongue depends in part on the size of the tumor. In some cases, surgically removing the cancer is possible. In other instances, treatment with radiation or chemotherapy might also be recommended.

If you suspect that you are having a tongue problem, your best bet is to schedule an appointment with your dentist for an exam and diagnosis. They will look at your tongue and take a swab or culture to determine if the issue is caused by an infection or something else. Keeping your tongue clean will help you achieve an overall healthy mouth.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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