The tongue is actually comprised of many groups of muscles that run in different directions to carry out the tongue’s multiple functions. It is composed of muscle tissue with a coating of sensors for taste, heat, pain and tactile information.
The front of the tongue is very flexible and works in a multitude of ways, from working with the teeth to create different sounds and words, to helping you eat by moving food around your mouth while you chew. It moves food to the back of the mouth for the back teeth to grind, and, once it’s mixed with saliva, the food is directed by the back muscles of the tongue into your esophagus, on its way to your stomach.
Of course, we know that in addition to helping us talk and eat, the tongue also helps us taste a multitude of different flavors, from sweet to salty, to sour to bitter. As we age, our taste buds begin to disappear from the sides and roof of our mouth, leaving the taste buds on the tongue to do most of the sensing. That’s why we say that our “tastes change” as we get older — it’s actually a change in our taste buds that allows us to eat foods when we’re older that were too strong a flavor for us when we were children.
If your tastes run to tongue jewelry, be aware that, because the mouth contains millions of bacteria, the risk of infection in a tongue piercing is much higher compared with piercings in other body parts. The process of piercing has been known to damage nerves and alter the sense of taste, while tongue jewelry itself can also damage teeth and gums. If you are convinced you still want an oral piercing, make sure you research your sources carefully, and ensure a strict dental follow-up schedule so we can monitor any potential problems.
It’s important to take care of your tongue, just like any other part of your mouth, by cleaning it properly and checking it carefully for any changes that might indicate oral cancer. In fact, stick out your tongue and examine the top, bottom and sides in a mirror. If there are any skin changes, cuts or red or white patches that don’t go away after a couple of weeks, make sure you come in so we can examine it thoroughly.
Cleaning the tongue – an important, yet often overlooked, oral hygiene issue – is as simple as taking an extra few seconds when you’re brushing your teeth, to gently brush your tongue too. The surface of the tongue has
tiny bumps called papillae that can harbor bacteria, and trapped germs can not only lead to bad breath, but can overgrow to result in a tongue that is yellow, white, or even black and fuzzy-looking (yuck!). If you have a sensitive gag-reflex, you may be more comfortable using a tongue-scraper instead of a toothbrush to clean your tongue.
A professional tongue inspection is just one of the many standard – yet important – procedures covered in your dental examinations. Please call if you have any questions or concerns about the way your tongue looks or feels.