The tongue, often taken for granted, plays a major role in our ability to savour flavours and articulate speech. Unfortunately, tongue cleaning is frequently overlooked during our oral hygiene routines, potentially affecting our overall oral health and taste perception.
“My tongue has numerous cracks and appears rough. Also, my mouth becomes dry often and gives bad breath especially while wearing the mask,” says Padmavathi P from Tiruppur, Tamil Nadu. Even though she tried chewing cardamom to bring in fresh flavour, it did not work.
“When there are cracks in the tongue, the bacteria and food particles get trapped in the cracks and can cause bad breath,” says Dr Deepa Natarajan, periodontist from Chennai.
Viral fever aftermath
Five years back, Padmavathi had a viral fever which led to the development of small red ulcers over the gums and tongue. “It still gives me a burning sensation whenever I eat spicy foods,” says the 61-year-old homemaker. Since the viral fever, she had vitamin deficiency and a weak immune system.
Her doctor prescribed multivitamin supplements for a month. Though the ulcers healed in some time, they kept recurring. Padmavathi drinks pomegranate juice regularly and avoids eating spicy food to manage the flare-ups.
For Padmavathi, taking care of her oral hygiene is necessary as she faces multiple dental issues. To manage her bad breath, she cleans her tongue regularly. “Using a scraper is difficult for me. So, I clean my tongue using the toothbrush itself,” she says.
Dr Natarajan says that some toothbrushes come with tongue scrapers at the back. It helps beginners to develop the habit of tongue cleaning.
“Now, I cannot go even one day without cleaning my tongue. This habit keeps my mouth fresh,” says Padmavathi.
The surface of the tongue becomes yellow or white due to the deposition of dead cells and food particles. This yellow/white coating becomes prominent when the mouth is dry due to dehydration. Moreover, a dry mouth is an ideal environment for bacterial growth.
“When the bacteria remain in the tongue for long, it produces sulphur compounds and results in bad breath,” says Dr Natarajan.
Consuming enough water and eating fibre-rich diet improves the salivary flow that flushes away the deposits and bacteria from the tongue.
If an individual consumes dairy products at night, especially milk, it is important to clean the tongue before sleeping. This is because the contents of these products can easily build up over the tongue and get deposited.
A 2022 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health states that regular use of a tongue scraper or toothbrush reduces the bacteria coating on the tongue and helps manage bad breath.
“Along with a weak immune system, people with autoimmune conditions also have soft tissues in the mouth, which change the appearance and texture of the tongue,” says Dr M Sridevi Balaji, oral and maxillofacial pathologist from Chennai.
According to the American Academy of Oral Medicine, use of tobacco increases the intensity of melanin pigmentation over the tongue and gives a brownish discolouration. “People who smoke and consume alcohol may be at risk of developing weak immune system and vitamin deficiency,” says Dr Balaji. In such cases, the doctor may prescribe supplements and suggest tongue cleaning along with quitting tobacco.
Role of saliva
“People with diabetes have dry mouth because of decreased salivary production. They are prone to fungal infection that results in thick white coatings over the tongue,” says Dr Natarajan.
She adds that an unclean tongue acts as a reservoir for the bacteria to thrive. This interferes with the natural cleansing action of saliva in our mouth. Moreover, it alters the consistency of the saliva into a stickier form. This gives an unpleasant feeling in the mouth.
Certain systemic conditions disrupt the good microbial flora of the tongue thereby affecting its hygiene. “For people with GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), the stomach acid can reach the throat, back of the mouth, and sometimes tongue. It causes inflammation in the tongue and gives a bitter taste,” says Dr Balaji.
She adds that the thick white patches over the tongue can cover the small taste buds that are distributed across the tongue, which alters our taste perception.
Including tongue cleaning in daily routine and maintaining good oral hygiene makes one stay away from these concerns.