Quick! Stick out your tongue and say…yuck? No one ever said tongues were pretty. And maybe that’s why they’re sometimes neglected when it comes to oral health. But your tongue is an important part of your mouth, and you should always include it in your hygiene routine. Here are four things you should know about keeping your tongue healthy:
1. Tongues need cleaning
Far from smooth, your tongue is covered in tiny bumps, called papillae. “The surface of the tongue can harbour a lot of bacteria,” says Euan Swan, dental programs manager at the Canadian Dental Association in Ottawa. In fact, a study at the University of Michigan’s School of Medicine discovered that about a third of the bacteria species found on people’s tongues weren’t growing on any other surfaces in their mouths.
Trapped germs on the tongue can lead to bad breath and affect your sense of taste, and the bacteria can travel to other parts of your mouth. Overgrowth of bacteria can turn your tongue yellow, white or even black and hairy-looking.
Make it a habit to thoroughly clean your tongue every time you brush your teeth. You can use a tongue cleaner, a small tool designed to scrape the tongue; it comes in various shapes and sizes. Your regular toothbrush will also do the job. Try to reach right to the back. If this triggers your gag reflex, keep trying. Eventually, your reflex will ease up. You might also find that a tongue cleaner doesn’t trigger the reflex as easily as a toothbrush does.
2. Some tongues deserve extra care
If a tongue hasn’t had much attention, it may be coated and crusty. People who have problems with physical dexterity or rely on others for oral care, are mouth breathers or take medications that dry the mouth may be more likely to have a coated tongue.
If your tongue is too dry and crusty when you scrape it, you risk damaging the tissue. Try brushing it after cleaning your teeth, while the mouth is still moist. You can also cover your tongue with a mouth-moisturizing spray or gel and wait 10 to 15 minutes, then brushing it.
3. Tongues can get cancer
Many oral cancers are missed in their early stages. A regular tongue inspection—say, once a week—can help to screen for oral cancer. “Stick your tongue out in the mirror and look around,” says Dr. Swan. Check the top, bottom and sides. Look for any skin changes, cuts or white or red patches that aren’t healing after a week or two.
Your dentist or dental hygienist should be examining your tongue during regular appointments, especially if you’re over 40. In a study in India, when tens of thousands of people were screened for mouth cancer, the death rate from this disease dropped by more than a third. If your dental care professional isn’t already giving your tongue a once-over, make a point of asking her to have a look.
4. Tongue jewellery hurts your mouth
Any body piercing carries a risk of infection. But the risk of infection with tongue piercings is higher because our mouths are already loaded with bacteria. Plus, the metal in tongue jewellery can badly damage your teeth and gums, wearing away enamel, loosening gums and cracking teeth. Even the tongue-piercing procedure itself has been known to damage nerves, cause permanent drooling or alter the sense of taste.
Dentists generally do not encourage tongue piercings. But if you’re keen to go ahead, make sure you use an experienced artist and that you’re well informed about possible complications and how to manage them.