Common Causes of 7 Tongue Problems

The tongue is one of those body parts that we don’t spend much time thinking about—unless and until something goes wrong with it. When changes in our tongue’s appearance, function, or sensations occur, it can be a nerve-wracking experience simply because it never occurs to most of us that anything like that could happen to our tongues.

So the first thing to do if you start having tongue issues is this: Don’t panic. Know that a variety of tongue issues are actually not uncommon, and that many of them result from treatable conditions or circumstances. Then turn to this handy list of potential causes for seven of the most common tongue problems.

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Tongue Problem: Burning Sensation

A burning sensation on the tongue may be a result of postmenopause or exposure to certain irritants, such as cigarette smoke. It may also stem from a medical condition such as diabetes, infection, or a vitamin deficiency.

Tongue Problem: Difficulty Tasting

Fun fact: The tongue is responsible for helping to sense bitter, salty, sour, and sweet tastes, while all other tastes are typically processed via smell. When someone is having difficulty tasting the flavors that are processed by the tongue, it may be the result of an infection, medication side effects, nerve damage, or damage to the taste buds.

Tongue Problem: Discoloration

Different color changes on the tongue may result from different causes. For example:

  • A bright pink color may result from a deficiency of folic acid, iron, or vitamin B-12
  • A black tongue may be the result of hairy tongue (more on that below)
  • A white tongue typically results from smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, or poor oral hygiene habits. In some cases, it may be the result of allergies, hepatitis C, or inflammation

Tongue Problem: Glossitis

“Glossitis” is simply a fancy term for swelling of the tongue. It may result from a number of causes, including allergic reactions, anemia, anxiety, cancer, certain medications, Down syndrome, overactive thyroid, strep throat, or a variety of rarer medical conditions.

Tongue Problem: Hairy Tongue

A typically harmless condition, hairy tongue results when bacteria and the protein keratin build up on the tongue and produce what appears to be fuzzy, discolored patches. In some cases, hairy tongue may result from a course of antibiotics, poor oral hygiene, dehydration, chronic medical conditions, or the consumption of irritating substances such as coffee, food dyes, or cigarette smoke. In most cases, brushing or scraping the tongue will eradicate the “hairy” appearance.

Tongue Problem: Leukoplakia

Leuokplakia is characterized by thick, white patches on the gums, tongue, and inside of the cheeks. Researchers are still trying to sort out potential causes of this condition; so far there appears to be a connection with exposure to tobacco smoke.

Tongue Problem: Pain

Because “pain” is a broad umbrella term, the cause of the pain can stem from a variety of sources. These include anemia, blisters, cancer, canker sores, damaged nerves, ill-fitting dentures, infection, injuries, leukoplakia, multiple sclerosis, or ulcers.

No matter their cause, different tongue problems can result in a variety of issues, including difficulty articulating speech, trouble eating, discomfort, and bad breath. If you suspect you might be experiencing one of these tongue conditions, it’s a good idea to consult your dentist ASAP so they can help you identify a probable cause and address the issue promptly.