In the olden days doctors were very keen on asking patients to put out their tongue, and made all sorts of diagnoses from its appearance. It is true that some conditions can alter the appearance of the tongue (for example, a smooth, red, sore tongue may be a sign of anaemia), but the appearance of the tongue normally varies a lot between individuals.
- White patches on the tongue and inside of the cheeks may be caused by thrush, a fungal infection that is common in babies and also in adults who have been taking antibiotics or have been unwell. These patches can be scraped off to leave red, sore areas underneath, and can be improved by special lozenges from your doctor.
- White patches that are not sore, cannot be scraped away and do not go away on their own (leukoplakia) are sometimes an early warning sign that the area could become cancerous in the future. These patches should be checked by your doctor so they can be dealt with before they develop further.
Ulcers and lumps on the tongue
Dark, swollen tongue
- Reduce the risk of swelling by sucking ice cubes hourly for the rest of the day.
- If your tongue swells, making it difficult to swallow or breathe, go to the nearest Accident and Emergency Department straight away.
- Every 4 hours, and after eating, give yourself a salt-water mouth bath to help prevent infection. This means dissolving 1 teaspoonful of salt in a glass of hot water, and immersing the site of the piercing for at least 2 minutes. This is awkward but possible – you have to fill the glass fairly full.
- If the area round the jewellery becomes red and tender, you may have an infection. Go to your doctor or an Accident and Emergency Department.
- If part of the jewellery becomes dislodged and you may have swallowed or inhaled it, go to your nearest Accident and Emergency Department.
- If the piercing bleeds, press it firmly with a clean cloth (for example, a clean handkerchief) for half an hour. If it continues to bleed, go immediately to the Accident and Emergency Department.
- The jewellery may damage your teeth and gums. A study from Ohio State University found that almost half the people wearing a tongue stud for more than 4 years had chipped teeth, and 35% had receding gums because of the stud banging against the gum (Journal of Periodontology 2002;73:289 –97). The longer the stud had been present, the worse the damage.
- The pierced site could become infected, but this seems to be fairly unusual in the tongue compared with other parts of the body (maybe because of its good blood supply). Resist the temptation to fiddle with the newly inserted stud.
- Because different parts of the tongue are sensitive to different tastes, some people find that a piercing affects their sense of taste. It can also cause slight difficulty in speaking clearly. If you need an operation, you will be asked to remove the tongue jewellery, because it can cause difficulties with the anaesthetic.
- Allergy is another problem, because the metal may not be pure. You may think that you have pure gold or steel jewellery, but it may contain substantial amounts of nickel, which can cause a sensitivity. When scientists in Finland tested body jewellery, they found that 11 of the 12 items they tested exceeded the EU safety limits for nickel. Surgical stainless steel with the mark 316L is of good quality and is unlikely to cause sensitivities. Niobium is an expensive metal, but is least likely to cause sensitivities.
- The piercing can allow bacteria to enter the bloodstream. In a recent case in the USA, the bacteria from a tongue piercing damaged the valves of the heart.
Written by: Dr Margaret Stearn
Edited by: Dr Margaret Stearn
Last updated: Friday, November 9th 2012
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We each probably have about 10 000 tastebuds on our tongues Tastebuds on the tongue can detect only four tastes - sweetness and saltiness at its tip and centre, acidity at the sides and bitterness at the back. Sense of smell helps to increase our range of tastes, which is why we lose our sense of taste when we have a cold
The tongue is one of the most touch-sensitive organs in the body; for example, it can detect tiny hairs that our fingers are unable to feel
Without our tongues, we would not be able to chew, swallow, taste or talk
The tongue doubles in length, width and thickness between birth and adolescence