You floss every day before bed and wash your teeth after every meal. But your oral hygiene practices need to be updated if you’re not setting aside a few minutes each day to brush your tongue as well.
“The human mouth is home to over 700 distinct bacterial species,” says Vera W.L. Tang, D.D.S., a clinical assistant professor at New York University’s department of periodontics and implant dentistry. These microorganisms are not all dangerous. However, the bad guys can do some serious harm when they colonize and proliferate in the nooks and crannies around the papillae, or tiny bumps, on the tongue’s surface.
How’s that? Think of your tongue as a bacteria sponge, spreading bad bacteria throughout the mouth and causing problems and disease, says Barbara L. McClatchie, D.D.S., founding member of the American Academy of Oral Systemic Health and owner of Complete Health Dentistry in Columbus, Ohio. What kind of problems are we talking about here? Consider these conditions, from the gross and embarrassing to the potentially life threatening.
Bad breath is the number one problem associated with not brushing your tongue,” says Steve Cook, D.D.S., owner of Austin City Dental in Austin, Texas. How it happens: The bacteria making a home on your tongue begin doing what an overgrowth of bacteria everywhere do—give off a foul stank. The odor-causing bugs tend to lurk in the back of the tongue, he adds, which is why its important to brush back there if you want to get rid of the funk.
When you don’t brush your tongue, a nasty coating of bacteria, food particles, and dead skin cells called a biofilm can cover up your taste buds, leaving your sense of taste less sharp, says McClatchie. Get rid of the biofilm and your taste buds will get going again.
We’re not making it up. This condition arises when the papillae on your tongue get stained from leftover food or drink particles, like coffee, and the particles are never brushed away, says Cook. That gives the entire tongue a dark, furry appearance. It’s otherwise harmless, and once you start tongue brushing, it should disappear.
Medically known as oral thrush, it can happen when the bacteria levels in your mouth get out of whack—say, from not brushing your tongue—and naturally occurring yeast grows out of control. The result: white patches on the tongue, says McClatchie. An antifungal medication can cure it, and regular tongue brushing should keep it from returning.
Bacteria buildup on your tongue can spread to your teeth, causing gingivitis, or red, inflamed gums. If it’s not treated, the inflammation can advance to periodontal disease, when the gums pull away from the teeth and the space in between becomes infected. Your teeth may fall out, but even more worrisome is that the chronic inflammation caused by periodontal disease is linked to a higher risk of heart attack, stroke, and miscarriage, says McClatchie.
By now, you’ll probably want to grab your toothbrush and give your tongue a good scrubbing. Here’s the right way to do it: Starting at the back of the tongue, gently brush toward the front, then go side-to-side. You don’t have to use toothpaste, but it’ll probably feel more comfortable, and the abrasiveness of toothpaste can help make cleaning more effective, says McClatchie. Do it at least once a day for a few minutes at a pop, but ideally twice, she adds.
Oh, and you’ve probably heard of tongue scrapers: tools found in the pharmacy dental aisle that are specially designed to remove bacteria, food particles, and other gunk from your tongue. While it’s perfectly fine to use one, all you really need for effective tongue brushing is a plain-old non-tricked-out toothbrush, says Cook.