While you might think of your tongue only being a certain color, the truth is that this small muscular organ can come in a range of colors. A tongue may turn red, yellow, purple, or another hue, and certain health conditions may even dictate its shape.
It’s not uncommon for your tongue to be a different color, but it’s still not a sign of optimal health.
If you’re wondering whether your tongue color is considered “healthy,” read on to learn what all the possible shades mean and when you should see a doctor.
While everyone’s tongue may look slightly different, a “typical healthy” tongue has similar characteristics. It ought to be pink, with a thin whitish coating on the surface.
Papillae are also prevalent on a healthy tongue. These are small nodules along the surface that help you eat and taste your food.
When your tongue is not its normal pink color, you could have an underlying health issue. Below are other colors your tongue may be and what they could mean.
- Red. A red (not dark pink) tongue could indicate as something as simple as a B vitamin deficiency, which can be remedied by supplementation. Scarlet fever, eczema, and Kawasaki disease may also cause your tongue to turn red. Red patches with white borders along your tongue is a rare, but harmless condition called geographic tongue.
- Purple. Heart problems and poor overall blood circulation may cause your tongue to turn purple. A purple tongue may also be seen in Kawasaki disease.
- Blue. Blue tongue may be indicative of poor oxygen circulation in the blood. This may be attributed to lung problems or kidney disease.
- Yellow. Your tongue may have a yellow appearance if you smoke or use chewing tobacco. Sometimes jaundice and psoriasis may also cause yellow tongue.
- Gray. Sometimes digestive issues may cause your tongue to turn gray. Peptic ulcers or eczema may also be to blame.
- White. A white tongue is usually caused by white patches that grow on the surface. These are usually caused by fungal infections, such as oral thrush. Antifungal medications can clear these patches up. White tongue may also be caused by benign conditions such as leukoplakia or oral lichen planus, which creates the appearance of white lines. Sometimes leukoplakia may become cancerous.
- Brown. This is usually harmless and caused by what you eat and drink. However, tobacco use is another cause of brown tongue, a harmful habit that could potentially lead to signs of oral cancer in the tongue, such as sores.
- Black. A dark brown to black tongue is most commonly attributed to bacteria from poor oral hygiene habits. Diabetes is another potential cause of a black tongue. Sometimes your papillae can multiply and look hairy, which is a characteristic of a benign condition called hairy black tongue.
Health diagnoses by tongue has long been done by traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners. According to TCM principles, the tongue itself is considered a representation of your overall health.
There are four main areas of the tongue observed in TCM:
- Color. Tongue color is considered the most important indication of all in TCM. Abnormal color changes over the long term could indicate issues with major body organs, such as the heart, liver, and kidneys.
- Coating. While a healthy tongue ought to have a thin whitish coating, TCM notes that a thicker coating could indicate an acute issue with your bladder, stomach, or intestines.
- Moisture. The moisture of your tongue is also investigated in TCM. Too much moisture indicates “dampness” in your body, while a dry tongue is the exact opposite.
- Shape. TCM also considers the shape of your tongue as an important indicator of your health. For example, a thin tongue may indicate fluid loss.
These TCM tongue principles are also being used in clinical studies. This is especially the case with tongue color. One study found that color had a disease diagnosis accuracy rate of nearly 92 percent.
Long-term changes in color
Your tongue might look slightly darker or lighter from day to day. However, any long-term changes in color noted above should warrant a visit to the doctor.
Changes in size or shape
You’ll also want to see your doctor if you notice changes in the shape of your tongue, such as swelling, unusual lumps, or thinning.
Changes in moisture or coating
Any changes in moisture and coating also ought to be looked at, especially if you notice thick whitish or yellowish film on your tongue. This type of coating could extend to other areas of the mouth, which could indicate an infection.
Notable changes in your tongue should be looked at by a doctor or dentist
Changes in your tongue may be observed by a doctor during your annual physical. However, if you notice any tongue changes in between your yearly visits, have it checked out by a doctor.
Your dentist will also take a look at your tongue during check-ups to look for signs of an infection or oral cancer.
You may not “see” your tongue on a regular basis, but this often overlooked body part can provide numerous insights into your overall health.
It’s important to clean your tongue every day so you quickly observe any potential changes. You can use a tongue scraper or do it with your toothbrush while brushing your teeth.
You should see a doctor if any changes in your tongue last for more than two weeks.