Young woman showing her tongue indoors

Interesting Facts About the Human Tongue

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Medically Reviewed By Colgate Global Scientific Communications

When you think about practicing good oral hygiene, chances are you think about brushing your teeth. But there's another part of your mouth that deserves just as much attention and care as those chompers of yours – your tongue. The tongue plays a vital role in helping you taste, swallow, digest, breathe, and communicate. That covers a lot of what you require as a human being to survive. And also to enjoy your life while doing so. To better understand how this one muscular organ can accomplish so much, we've compiled a list of fascinating and useful tongue facts for you, as well as some tips for proper care.

What Is the Basic Anatomy of the Tongue?

The average tongue is four inches long. Your anterior tongue (the front portion) is about two-thirds of its total length. The posterior tongue sits near the back of your throat and makes up the other third.

Your tongue has eight muscles. Intrinsic muscles aren't attached to any bones and allow you to guide the tongue's tip and change its shape. The extrinsic muscles are attached to the bone and enable you to change your tongue's position. Together, these muscles allow your tongue the freedom of movement required to perform many of its most essential tasks.

How Is Your Tongue Able to Taste Different Flavors?

You could have anywhere between 2,000 to upwards of 10,000 taste buds on your tongue with about 50-150 receptor cells each. They are great at regenerating – the cells replace themselves every 1-2 weeks. According to the University of Texas Health Science Center, digestive enzymes in saliva dissolve food so they can be detected and perceived by your taste buds as five possible flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, or savory. You also have taste receptors in your cheeks, palate, lips, and the back of your mouth.

Why Is Sensitivity Necessary for Tongues?

The tip of the tongue is the most sensitive part of your body, offering two benefits. First, it gives your tongue a "magnifying effect," making things feel larger than they are, helping you notice any unwanted items in your food, like a fishbone, a piece of dirt, or a hair. After you swallow food, your tongue is better able to search the entire mouth for the remaining portions of the chewed pieces.

Why Is the Tongue Considered a Digestive Organ?

According to an article published in the South African Dental Journal, the tongue is a digestive organ because of its abilities to aid in the chewing process (mastication), the transference of food to your throat, and then its essential role in helping you swallow.

How Does the Tongue Help You Speak?

An excellent way for you to understand how your tongue helps you speak is to say something out loud while paying attention to what's happening inside your mouth. When you talk, you push air out of your lungs, through your throat, and then out of your mouth. Your vocal cords vibrate to create sound, and the movement of your tongue and lips change the airflow, forming the words you (hopefully) intend to communicate. Even minimal changes in tongue placement can alter the sound you produce.

How Does Your Tongue Protect Against Germs?

The defense cells of the tongue are collectively called the lingual tonsil. It's at the base of the tongue in the back of the mouth. Along with the palatine tonsils (tissue in the rear of the throat) and the adenoids (a patch of tissue high up in the throat), your lingual tonsil helps defend your body against germs that may enter through your mouth.

How Much Bacteria Is on Your Tongue?

According to an article published in the European Journal of Dentistry, the prevalence of bad breath (halitosis if you want to get technical) in the US general population is about 50 percent. The most common causes of these less-than-pleasant odors are eating certain foods, drinking alcohol, smoking habits, and poor dental hygiene. "Poor dental hygiene" is inclusive of how well you care for your tongue. The tongue itself can trap bacteria. How much depends on the individual and how well they care for their mouth. But when bacteria are allowed to flourish, the odor can be, well – odorous. Luckily there are plenty of things you can do to keep your tongue in good health and keep your breath minty fresh.

Learn how to clean your tongue and avoid bad breath.

Be sure that you don't forget to brush your tongue when you brush at least twice a day. Consider using other helpful products like an antimicrobial mouth rinse and tongue scrapers. And be sure to see your dental professional for regular appointments – not only to keep your teeth pearly white but to keep your tongue in good health, too. When you begin to take care of your tongue, you may realize how central it is – not only to your mouth but to your ability to live a healthy, vibrant, fulfilling life.

Oral Care Center articles are reviewed by an oral health medical professional. This information is for educational purposes only. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist, physician or other qualified healthcare provider. 

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