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Why Dentists Check Your Tongue

by | Aug 3, 2020

Have you ever noticed that dentists check your tongue at every visit? Have you ever wondered why? Believe it or not, looking at the patient’s tongue is a vital part of an oral exam. Your tongue provides clues about your dental health, and even about your overall health.

What Dentists are Looking for When Checking Your Tongue

At every appointment, your dentist looks for signs and symptoms of a healthy mouth.


White spots

White spots can indicate a number of health issues, ranging in severity from minor inconveniences to serious.

Your tongue can turn white when the tiny bumps there, known as papillae, swell up and become inflamed. The inflamed bumps, known as transient lingual papillitis or “lie bumps,” trap bacteria, fungi, dirt, food, and dead cells between the enlarged papillae; the collection of debris causes your tongue to turn white. Treatment for transient lingual papillitis includes brushing twice a day, rinsing with salt water, and avoiding irritating foods.

White spots on your tongue may also be an indication of a more serious health issue. These spots may be from leukoplakia, for example, a condition that may be an early sign of cancer.


Red instead of pink color

Tongues are supposed to be pink in color; discoloration of the tongue can be a sign of illness. A tongue that is red (not dark pink) instead of pink, sometimes known as a “strawberry tongue,” could be the result of a vitamin deficiency, Kawasaki disease, or the strep infection known as scarlet fever. A red tongue might also be a sign of erythroplakia, which is a precancerous condition that has a high risk of turning into cancer.


Dark coloring or a hairy texture

Black hair tongue is a condition in which black, gray, or brown patches that look like they’re growing hair appear on the tongue. The condition can start out as a small spot and eventually grow large enough to coat most of the top of your tongue. The patches are the result of an accumulation of dead skin cells that fail to shed when they should. The failure to shed may be due to poor oral hygiene, the use of some medications, or even tobacco use. Bacteria can take hold of the dead skin cells to create the appearance of hair growing on the dark spots.

Nearly anything you put into your mouth, including food, caffeine, and mouthwash, can affect the color of the spots. Other symptoms include bad breath and a burning or tickling sensation on your tongue or on the roof of your mouth.

Your risk of developing black hairy tongue increases as you get older; you are also at higher risk for developing the condition if you are male.

Black hairy tongue usually resolves in just a few weeks with home care without medical intervention. Use your toothbrush or tongue scraper on your tongue daily to help treat black hairy tongue at home. Your dentist can also use special tools to scrape your tongue. Brushing your tongue or using a tongue scraper frequently after brushing your teeth can prevent black hairy tongue from returning.


Sores, bumps or cuts

Sores, bumps or cuts on the tongue may indicate canker sores, which are shallow, whitish ulcers that may develop as the result of exposure to:

  • Minor trauma to the tongue
  • Sensitivity to foods
  • Mouthwashes and toothpaste containing lauryl
  • Vitamin deficiency
  • An allergic response to bacteria in your mouth
  • Emotional stress
  • Celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease
  • The menstrual cycle
  • HIV/AIDS or other immune disorders

Sores, bumps or cuts to your tongue might also be a sign of tongue cancer. The most common type of tongue cancer, known as squamous cell carcinoma, often appears as an ulcer or scab that never heals and may bleed if you touch it.

Now that you know why your dentist checks your tongue at every visit, you can start looking at your own tongue to spot signs of trouble. Scrape your tongue after you brush your teeth and look for white spots, a red color, a dark color or hairy texture, sores, bumps and cuts.

If you notice worrisome changes to your tongue, contact Triangle Dentistry. The dentists at Triangle Dentistry will examine your tongue and the rest of your mouth for signs of minor or serious oral health conditions. Triangle Dentistry even has a special offer for new patients.


Triangle Dentistry, located in Raleigh, NC, provides a state-of-the-art facility that offers exceptional general dental and specialty services guided by empathy of a patient’s needs and desires. Services range from dental crowns to veneers and whitening procedures. For further information, questions, or to schedule an appointment, contact the office at (919) 847-6000