The Tongue Color Code: What Your Tongue Color and Appearance Indicates | 1MD Nutrition™

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The Tongue Color Code: What Your Tongue Color and Appearance Indicates

The tongue color code says a lot about your health. Tips on giving a tongue self check-up, tongue coating and color can be disease, inflammation, unhealthy habits, and more. Learn about what you need to know for tongue health here.

7 minute read

Last Updated April 7, 2022

The Tongue Color Code: What Your Tongue Color and Appearance Indicates

We generally depend on our tongue to let us know if something tastes good or not. Our tongue can also alert us to dangers in terms of rotten or poisonous foods or substances that are too hot.

But your tongue is capable of much more than just taste duties. It can give you an insight into your own health.

As it happens, the size, color, form and texture of your tongue can be used to diagnose your health. There is a reason why the doctor asks you to stick out you tongue for almost every checkup.

The Tongue Self Check-Up

The best time to look at your tongue is first thing in the morning before brushing your teeth.  Ideally, you want to do this in as natural a light as possible.

It is not recommended that you strain your tongue because this can alter the results and what you see.

The color of your tongue as well as the color of any coating will vary because of food, beverages, medications and even smoking, which is why you should always examine it first thing or at least an hour after any exposure to these elements.

The Color of Your Tongue

Who knew that your tongue had such a spectrum? Here are what some of the colors you can see mean.

Light pink: This is the color of a healthy tongue and a light white coating is also normal. There should be no cracks, ulcers, or teeth marks, and normal tongue size is medium in terms of thickness.

By running your fingertips across your tongue, you should feel tiny nodules that feel slightly fuzzy, which are your papillae (hairs between your taste buds).  

Red: A red tongue can indicate the presence of an infectious disease or simply be part of the inflammatory process. Glossitis is the inflammation of the tongue that leads to increased blood flow to the organ and a red appearance. Mostly this is caused by acute mechanical or chemical injury or an infection from bacteria entering a cut on the tongue.

Bright red: If the red coloring becomes much brighter, you could be looking at heart disorders or blood diseases as the culprit. However, bright red tongues also occur with vitamin B12 deficiencies, toxic shock syndrome, and strep throat.  

Yellow: Yellow discoloration is uncommon but could be a sign of jaundice which is associated with liver problems. Additionally, a yellowish color can be noted with persistent stomach problems too.

close-up of a person's mouth

Most likely, a yellow tongue is the start of the gradual development of a disease and the color changes to brown and then black. Poor dental hygiene, smoking and certain medications can cause this to occur.

Purple: A purple tongue indicates blood stasis which may be a sign of heart complications.  If you are not pumping blood in the regular way, this can impact blood flow. In the same way, this can indicate lung problems because a lack of oxygen in the blood will cause a bluish-purple tint to appear.

Blue: If you notice your tongue is a bluish color this could be an indication of cyanosis, which is a condition caused when there is not enough oxygen supply to tissues. This can be caused by blood disorders, diseased blood vessels, kidney disease, and respiratory insufficiency. It is advised to seek immediate medical attention.

Pale: An obviously pale-colored tongue most likely indicates a vitamin or nutritional deficiency and should be easily rectified with diet changes.

White: A white tongue is most commonly caused by dehydration and can easily be corrected by drinking more water. Additionally, white tongues can indicate a fungal infection, such as oral thrush or the flu.

a glass of water being poured into a glass

Gray: A gray-colored tongue can indicate long-term digestive or intestinal problems. Typically, the gray color comes from a coating caused by bacterial build up associated with digestive issues.

The Coating on Your Tongue

A normal, healthy tongue will have a light white coating which can easily be brushed away.  Anything thicker or varying in color beyond this can indicate serious health problems requiring immediate attention.

Thick white coating: While a thick, white coating can form as a result of drinking too much alcohol (intoxication), it can also indicate an infectious disease. Oral thrush is one such disease caused by an overgrowth of a yeast known as candida.

With oral thrush or yeast infections, you will notice other symptoms. A white coating can also appear as a result of bacteria or dead cells getting trapped between the papillae.

Brown coating: Repeated coffee drinking and smoking can lead to a brown discoloration of the tongue. More seriously, however, a permanent brown coating can be an indication of lung problems and is often seen in chronic smokers.

With time and no treatment, this brown coating can turn black and you may notice a distinctively hairy feeling across the surface of your tongue.

a person's mouth with a blue and white tube

Yellow coating: A thick, yellow coating indicates digestive issues, specifically problems with your stomach, gallbladder, or even your liver. There are also some foods that can cause a temporary yellowish coating, so there is only cause for concern should the coating be thick and remain for a long time.

Gray coating: Gastric issues and possible peptic ulcers are generally the cause for a gray coating to appear on the tongue. Often it may not be obvious that there is a coating and the tongue will just have a gray tint to it.

The Bottom Line

It is important to remember that even though your tongue can tell you a great deal about your health, it is not always 100 percent accurate. The tongue can be injured from aggressive food, which allows bacteria to enter through a small wound and leads to temporary irritation.

Not every color change is going to indicate internal disease. If you do have concerns about your tongue color or coating, then speak to your physician before rushing out to self-medicate.

The tongue may be a good indicator of something more serious lurking within, but ultimately your doctor must make the final diagnosis.