When the dentist asks you to “open wide” during your next checkup, it might not be just to take a look at your teeth. Your oral health professional can look at your tongue, throat and tonsils to check if you have a health issue, disease or even a dangerous sleep disorder called Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA).
First let’s start with your tongue which not only helps you speak, but can speak volumes about your health, without saying a word. It’s a helpful tool for exposing and diagnosing health and quality of life issues, so pay attention to your tongue!
To start, I recommend that you look in a mirror, stick out your tongue and take a good look. A healthy tongue should be a natural pink color and covered with small tiny bumps or nodules, called papillae. Anything irregular looking or painful should be a cause for concern and a merit a visit to an oral health professional. You should make an appointment for diagnosis and treatment if you notice large, recurring or frequent sores, have frequent pain, a persistent or painful problem lasting more than ten days to two weeks, an accompanying high fever or difficulty eating, drinking or swallowing.
A smooth, pale surface could be a sign of a B12 or iron deficiency, or loss of taste buds.
A white coating or white spots could be an indication of oral thrush, a yeast infection most commonly seen in infants and the elderly, especially denture wearers, or the result of smoking, drinking alcohol or poor oral hygiene It can also be seen in people who take steroids to treat asthma, those with weakened immune systems or people who suffer from lung disease. White lines or bumps can be from inflammation called oral lichen planus, an autoimmune response that may be triggered by Hepatitis C or allergies.
A red or bright pink tongue could be a sign of Strep throat, a folic acid or B-12 vitamin deficiency, Scarlet fever, Kawasaki disease, a serious condition affecting children under the age of five, dry mouth or a gluten allergy.
A black and/or “hairy” tongue may be a sign of poor oral hygiene, fungal infection, a side effect from antibiotics, chemotherapy or radiation treatment, or a sign of diabetes or AIDS.
A bumpy or sore tongue can be due to accidental scalding or biting, smoking, canker sores or ulcers, or oral cancer.
Cracks or fissures in your tongue can appear from poor oral hygiene, fungal infection, or an autoimmune disorder.
Persistent red or painful sores can be due to injury or infection, scalding from food or drink, food allergies, nutritional deficiencies, postmenopausal hormonal changes, stress, herpes simplex virus, oral cancer caused by the HPV virus, or tobacco use.
Tongue pain can occur from natural aging, injury or infection, neuralgia or nerve damage, canker sores, oral cancer, anemia, herpes simplex virus, multiple sclerosis, diabetes or irritating dentures or braces.
Tongue swelling may be a symptom of cancer, an overactive thyroid, leukemia, strep throat, anemia, and even in people who have no teeth or dentures. A tongue that appears too big could indicate hypothyroidism or slow metabolism.
And let’s not leave out the problems with tonsils and uvula that can cause Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). Snoring can be an indication of a serious and life threatening problem that an oral health practitioner can often identify with an examination. Snoring is due to vibrations in the soft tissues of the upper airway as we breathe, and can be a symptom or sign of OSA. OSA affects the nose, back of your tongue, the soft palate (the roof and back of your mouth) the back of your throat which includes your tonsils and uvula, and can cause throat muscles to relax, blocking the airway. Severe cases of OSA are linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression and even memory loss. Obese individuals are almost 10 times more likely to report OSA symptoms than non-obese patients. According to the American Sleep Association, “25 million adults in the U.S. have OSA, with 80 percent of those affected, being male. The disorder is responsible for reduced sleep and can lead to fatigue, irritability, and trouble concentrating. In severe cases, the disorder can lead to learning and memory difficulties, heart attack, congestive heart failure, cardia arrhythmia, stroke or depression.
So there’s a lot of information to chew on, so become your mouth’s best friend and watch your tongue!