So you’ve got your tooth brushing routine down pat. Twice a day, every day, you scrub down each tooth with a soft-bristled toothbrush and a fluoride toothpaste, just like your Wilmington dentist recommended at your last cleaning. You make sure to dedicate a full two minutes to the task, too — none of that rushed, ineffective toothbrushing for you. Next comes a brisk flossing, getting in between every set of teeth. Take that, gum disease! Finally, to tame bad breath, you swish some mouthwash around in there.

So, after all that, why does your mouth sometimes still taste and smell bad? The answer might be simpler than you think: You missed your tongue.

Bacteria and the Tongue

woman sticking out her tongueYour mouth, including your tongue, plays host to a wide variety of different kinds of bacteria. While some bacteria can cause cavities, most of the bacteria in your mouth are largely harmless. In fact, many of them help defend your body from disease. Some of these bacteria live on your tongue, where they can become trapped under your tongue’s protective mucus layer.

Many of the bacteria living in our mouths are specialized. So, in general, the bacteria that live on your tongue aren’t going to form plaque on your teeth, infect your gums, or cause other problems. However, if your mouth is in an unhealthy state, the bacteria that normally live on teeth and gums might also colonize your tongue. People with good oral health might not need to clean their tongues. This could even be harmful–if you remove the beneficial bacteria there, it makes more room for unhealthy bacteria to move in.

If your Wilmington dentist recommends cleaning your tongue, add it to your oral hygiene routine. Otherwise, wait until you see signs that it’s necessary before you start a vigorous tongue cleaning regimen.

Signs You Need to Clean Your Tongue

There are many signs that can tell you when you need to start cleaning your tongue:

  • Persistent bad breath
  • Reduced or distorted taste
  • Black tongue
  • Yeast infections
  • Recurring gum disease

Your tongue could be a source of persistent bad breath. Just like any living organism, these bacteria feed on some substances and produce others, and one of the substances they can produce is a highly odorous sulfur compound. It’s this collection of trapped bacteria that can create that unpleasant taste at the back of your mouth that often heralds some particularly bad breath. If you brush and floss your teeth, but you still get bad breath, it’s time to add tongue brushing.

Taste is one of the key functions of your tongue, but if bacteria form a biofilm on it, you might have difficulty tasting. In addition, the smelly byproducts of bacteria can distort your taste, creating a bad taste.

Just like your teeth, your tongue can get stained. While teeth whitening works for teeth, there’s no such procedure your Wilmington dentist can recommend for your tongue. Instead, it’s time to clean your tongue. Most of the staining is actually in the bacterial biofilm, so if you remove that, your tongue will look more healthy and normal.

Yeast infections, also called oral thrush, normally affect children and denture wearers, but if this fungus colonizes your tongue, it can be hard to eliminate unless you clean your tongue regularly.

As we said above, most bacteria are specialized, so the bacteria that live on your tongue aren’t normally the kind that infects your gums. However, if you have serious gum disease, these bacteria can also colonize your tongue. Then, when you clean your gums, they can quickly reestablish themselves in gum pockets. If gum disease keeps coming back, add tongue cleaning to your oral hygiene.

Brush Your Tongue, Too

The solution? Just extend that tooth brushing vigor to your tongue! You can use your standard toothbrush to gently brush your tongue, starting towards the back of the tongue (be careful not to brush too far back and trigger your gag reflex!) and working your way forward. You can use a small dab of toothpaste to make sure you neutralize that odor-causing bacteria. Some toothbrushes have a built-in tongue cleaner on the reverse side of the toothbrush head.

If you want a tool specifically built for the job, you may want to pick up a tongue scraper: A flexible piece of plastic made to help remove that thin mucus layer from the tongue. Start at the back of your tongue and draw the scraper forward. After each pass over your tongue, clean off the scraper. Repeat in an overlapping pattern, like vacuuming or mowing the lawn, until you’ve gotten your entire tongue. Sometimes the texture of your tongue means you have to approach it from several different angles. After completing cleaning in one direction, try going over your tongue at a different angle to see if you remove more biofilm.

No matter what tool you’re using to clean your tongue, it should be gentle. You don’t need to rub your tongue raw to clean it — the mucus and bacteria should come off easily with a light cleaning.

Preventive Dental Care in Wilmington

Now that you’re (hopefully) convinced to brush your tongue, don’t forget to visit your Wilmington dentist every six months for a cleaning and checkup; after a while, plaque can harden into tartar, which can only be removed with special tools or by a dentist.

Keep your mouth safe, and give us a call.

If you are overdue for your next dental visit, please call (910) 392-6060 or email Kuzma Advanced Dentistry in the Shipyard Commons for an appointment with a Wilmington dentist.