Meet Your Tongue

It’s one strong or­gan.


1 Anatomy of a Tongue

That wet, pink pro­tru­sion in your mouth is amaz­ingly in­tri­cate. The tongue is an or­gan made up of eight mus­cles that give it flex­i­bil­ity and en­durance; they help you form sounds and al­low you to move it ev­ery which way with­out its get­ting tired. It’s coated with tiny bumps called papil­lae, which grip food as you chew, and each of these is cov­ered in mi­cro­scopic taste buds. When taste buds come in con­tact with food or drink, nerve cells send a sig­nal to your brain that tells you if you’re tast­ing some­thing salty, spicy, tangy, or sweet. As we age, we lose some of the roughly 10,000 buds we’re born with; this is why you may no­tice your sense of taste get­ting duller.

2 What It’s Try­ing to Say

Be­sides alert­ing you to how the food you’re eat­ing tastes (or if it’s gone bad!), the tongue pro­vides a win­dow to the rest of your body. A healthy tongue is bright pink with an even sur­face. If it’s cov­ered in a thick white coat­ing, that could mean you’re de­hy­drated, but if you see white patches, call your doc­tor—this could sig­nal the fun­gal con­di­tion thrush, and she can pre­scribe an­ti­fun­gal med­i­ca­tion to help clear the in­fec­tion and run tests for con­di­tions of which thrush can be a symp­tom.

3 Heal It From Hurt

Your tongue has many nerve and sen­sory cells, which is why even the teen­si­est bite or burn can be re­ally pain­ful and even turn into a su­per-ouchy bump. Here’s how to help the tongue re­cover:

A BURN: This dam­ages your papil­lae, but luck­ily they re­gen­er­ate quickly af­ter a scald­ing and should heal in a cou­ple of days. While you wait, soothe the pain by suck­ing on an ice cube.

A BITE: Neu­rons in the brain con­trol our in­ter­nal mouth mo­tions to pro­tect the tongue from get­ting bit­ten while we chew, but some­times it still hap­pens. If it does, swish around a cleans­ing salt­wa­ter so­lu­tion.

A CUT: Even the tini­est in­jury can trig­ger in­flam­ma­tion and a sore spot or bump while the body re­pairs the dam­age. If it re­ally hurts, an over-the­counter pain re­liever like ibupro­fen can help.

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