What Is a Healthy Tongue Color?

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When your physician asks you to stick out your tongue, they're checking its color and appearance for signs that you may be unwell. The color of your tongue is a handy indicator that you could have a nutritional deficiency, are dehydrated, or are suffering from another health or dental problem. You can check if you have a healthy tongue color yourself when you brush your teeth. Here's what to look for.

What Does a Healthy Tongue Look Like?

The Cleveland Clinic explains that a healthy tongue is pink and it has small nodules called papillae over the surface. Some medical disorders may cause your tongue to change its appearance, and some of them are serious. If your tongue changes to a different color, develops patches or lesions that don't go away, or it swells or becomes painful, visit a dentist or doctor to find the cause of the problem.

Tongue Discoloration

A discolored, oddly patterned or bumpy tongue could be a sign of an oral or general health problem, according to Merck Manual. A white coating or white patches could be the result of an oral thrush infection, leukoplakia due to alcohol or tobacco use, fever, dehydration or a skin disease called lichen planus. Breathing through the mouth is another cause of white tongue.

The causes of a smooth, red, possibly swollen tongue include anemia, niacin deficiency, a scarlet fever infection or, in young children, a serious condition called Kawasaki disease. Both scarlet fever and Kawasaki disease require immediate medical attention. Anemia may also cause a pale tongue.

A yellow tongue may be a precursor to a black tongue, notes the Mayo Clinic. In most cases both yellow and black tongue are harmless. It may simply mean that there's a buildup of dead skin cells caught in the papillae. Black tongue discoloration is caused by taking medical preparations that contain bismuth, says the Merck Manual.

How to Maintain a Healthy Tongue Color

Like teeth, the tongue is visible to your family, friends, acquaintances and strangers, so if it doesn't look healthy, you may feel self-conscious. If your dentist or doctor has ruled out a medical cause for your tongue discoloration, you can improve its appearance by gently brushing twice a day at the same time that you clean your teeth and gums. Brush with a Colgate 360° Advanced 4 Zonetoothbrush, which includes an innovative cheek and tongue cleaner design.

Poking out your tongue to check its color after brushing your teeth can be a reassuring habit, and if it changes color or another problem develops, you'll notice right away. A healthy tongue color isn't a guarantee that your dental health is good, however. Don't forget to visit your dentist regularly so they can check the rest of your mouth.

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Each tooth has several distinct parts; here is an overview of each part:

  • Enamel – this is the outer and hardest part of the tooth that has the most mineralized tissue in the body. It can be damaged by decay if teeth are not cared for properly.

  • Dentin – this is the layer of the tooth under the enamel. If decay makes it through the enamel, it next attacks the dentin — where millions of tiny tubes lead directly to the dental pulp.

  • Pulp – this is the soft tissue found in the center of all teeth, where the nerve tissue and blood vessels are located. If tooth decay reaches the pulp, you usually feel pain and may require a root canal procedure.