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When your doctor asks you to, “Say ahh,” you may assume he or she is just looking down your throat. That’s true but the physician may also be examining the health of your tongue. Examining the tongue for cues into overall health is an ancient practice dating back over 1,000 years ago in Chinese medicine.

A healthy tongue has a light red or pinkish body with a thin white coating and is studded with small bumps called papillae. A variation from this norm can indicate a bigger health problem.

Tongue Colors:

White — If your tongue has a thick white coating, it could indicate oral thrush. This is particularly common in infants, those with weakened immune systems, and those who use inhaled steroids. If the white is patchy, it can be an overgrowth of cells and a precursor to cancer. Get it checked out.

Red — A red tongue indicates heat in your body, such as an infection or fever. A bright red tongue can also indicate a lack of folic acid or vitamin B-12. When a red tongue is accompanied with a high fever, it could be a sign of scarlet fever or Kawasaki disease (most common in those age 5 and under). If you experience a high fever, get checked out by your doctor quickly.

Purple or Blue — A purple or blue tongue can indicate problems with your cardiovascular system.  Your doctor will be able to examine your heart and lungs closely to make sure that there is no evidence of cyanosis — a condition where your blood does not carry enough oxygen. It can also be a sign of a riboflavin (B2) deficiency.

Black or Brown — This looks a lot scarier than it is. The “hairy tongue” is usually caused by smoking, but also can be due to bad oral hygiene or a side effect of chemotherapy. With proper oral hygiene, this usually goes away on its own.

Inspect your tongue daily. If you develop sores or bumps on your tongue that last more than two weeks, see your doctor or dentist. Oral cancer usually begins without any associated pain, so a visual inspection is your best bet for early detection.


Weekly Health Tips are brought to you by UCF Health, the College of Medicine’s physician practice. Offering primary and specialty care under one roof, UCF Health treats patients age 16 and up in primary care and age 18 and up for specialty care. Most major insurance plans are accepted. Two locations are now open: the original in East Orlando at Quadrangle and University boulevards just blocks from the main UCF campus, and the newest one in Medical City at Narcoossee Road and Tavistock Lakes Boulevard. Information for both facilities can be found at, or call (407) 266-DOCS to schedule an appointment.

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