Cleaning Your Tongue

In dentistry, we spend a lot of time talking about the need to clean your teeth.  This is essential for maintaining healthy teeth and gums.  The bacteria that collect on the teeth lead to dental problems like cavities and gum disease.  You cannot have a healthy mouth without cleaning your teeth.

That being said, it is also important for you to clean your tongue.  This blog will explain why.

Why Does the Tongue Need Cleaning?

The anatomy of the tongue is different from that of the rest of the inside of the mouth.  The gums, cheeks, inside of lips, roof of the mouth and floor of the mouth are all generally smooth in surface texture.  Not the tongue!

The tongue is bumpy, covered in hundreds of tiny projections called papillae.  These papillae are not the taste buds themselves, but they do contain taste buds.  Each bump has from three to five taste buds, which are tiny nerve endings sensing flavor, temperature, and touch.  There are four different types of papillae, and some are larger than others are.  Papillae can become inflamed or irritated, causing sore spots on the tongue.

This bumpy surface, unique to the tongue, is the reason you should clean your tongue.  Where there are bumps, there are grooves, pits, and other hiding places for bacteria to congregate.  As we all know, large gatherings of bacteria are bad news!

What Problems Does a “Dirty” Tongue Cause?

The biggest problem caused by a “dirty” tongue is bad breath.  Many oral bacteria produce stinky compounds called Volatile Sulfur Compounds, or VSCs.  The more bacteria there are, the worse it smells.  If you suffer from persistent bad breath, cleaning your tongue is the first step in fighting it.

Another problem resulting from a “dirty” tongue is an increased risk for dental diseases like cavities and gum disease.  Basically, the tongue becomes a harbor for large numbers of bacteria, and even if you are cleaning your teeth well, these tongue bacteria can reassemble on the teeth relatively quickly.  Anything that leads to a high population of bacteria in your mouth also increases your risk for dental disease.

Who is Most Likely to Have Tongue Problems?

Not all tongues are alike.  Some people have a tongue with a bumpier texture than others do.  The size of the papillae can vary widely.  Those with larger papillae may have deeper grooves and larger hiding spots for bacteria.

People who suffer from dry mouth also have a higher risk for collections of bacteria on the tongue.  This is because saliva is the body’s natural defense against bacteria.  It has a washing or flushing motion over the inside of the mouth.  When a mouth is dry, whether due to prescription medication side effects or salivary gland dysfunction, bacterial counts increase rapidly.

People with active cavities and gum disease already contain a higher number of bacteria in their mouths, so their tongues are at a higher risk for collection.

Malnutrition leads to changes in the surface of the tongue, some of which can change the texture.  Often changes in the tongue surface are the first clue that someone has a vitamin or mineral deficiency!

How Do You Clean a Tongue?

There are two important steps in cleaning a tongue.  One uses liquid to flush away bacteria caught in the grooves of the tongue.  The other physically removes any buildup.

Mouthwash

Using mouthwash is essential to keeping your tongue free from large deposits of bacteria.  Not only does the physical movement of the liquid penetrate deep into the grooves of the tongue; the chemicals present help break down large colonies of bacteria.

For some people, just gentle swishing with an antiseptic mouthrinse is enough to clean the tongue.  For others, with large papillae toward the back of the mouth, a vigorous gargle may be necessary.  Different mouthwash formulations work on different problems in the mouth.

If your motivation for cleaning your tongue is chronic, severe bad breath, you should look for a mouthwash containing chlorine dioxide or zinc.  They are both ingredients proven to break down volatile sulfur compounds.

If you suffer from dry mouth, it is important to use a mouthwash with a mild formula and no harsh chemicals.  Make sure you choose a mouthwash that is free from alcohol, which can dry the mouth out even more!  Colgate makes a great mouthwash for dry mouth sufferers called Hydris, and Biotene brand is good for dry, sensitive mouths.

Tongue Cleaners (a.k.a. “Scrapers”)

After swishing, to loosen accumulated plaque and bacteria, some people still have buildup on the tongue, especially toward the back.  In these cases, it is wise to employ the use of a tongue cleaner.

Traditionally these have been called “scrapers”, but we dislike that term.  Why?  Because it implies that you need to use a strong, scraping motion to clean the tongue, and that is not true.  You should never use a hard tool to scrape the surface of your tongue.  This can damage the delicate tissue of the papillae, leaving it raw and inflamed.

What you should use is a rubbery tongue cleaner.  As opposed to some hard plastic materials, the correct kind of tongue clear is flexible and gentle to the papillae on your tongue.  We like the BreathRx Tongue Cleaner.  They are very inexpensive and will not harm your tongue!

You can use a tongue cleaner throughout the day, especially after meals to remove odor-causing bacteria.  This will help you maintain fresh breath all day long!

More Questions about Cleaning Your Tongue?

Call your nearest Premier Dental of Ohio location today to schedule a consultation with one of our doctors.  After a thorough evaluation of your mouth, he or she will let you know what specific risk areas you have and how to properly clean your tongue between dental visits.