Dr Oh Xue Ling BDS (Adelaide)
Growing up, we have always been instructed to brush our teeth twice daily. What about the tongue? Often, when I remind patients to brush their tongue in addition to the daily tooth brushing and floss, I am greeted with surprised looks.
What does my tongue do?
The tongue is made up of a group of muscles, and it has many important functions such as helping us chew, swallow, taste and talk. As we eat, our tongue moves the food from the front of the mouth to the back of the mouth, allowing our teeth to break it down to smaller pieces, then shaping it into a small ball to make it easier to swallow.
It also contains thousands of taste buds, which allow us to enjoy and savor our food. During the speech, the tongue changes shape and position quickly in order to produce the right sounds to make out the words we want to say.
Why should I clean my tongue?
The tongue is not a smooth surface, unlike our teeth which are relatively smooth. The top surface of our tongue is covered in numerous tiny bumps, creating small peaks and troughs. These rough surfaces are perfect for bacteria and food debris to accumulate in. If left on the tongue for prolonged periods, they will cause bad breath and even a white plaque-like discoloration of the tongue.
The bacteria on the tongue can also transfer onto the teeth and gums, increasing the possibility of decay and gum disease. Hence, for a thorough clean of your mouth, we should always brush our tongue in addition to toothbrushing and flossing.
How do I clean my tongue?
You may clean your tongue either by brushing or by scraping with a tongue scraper. After brushing your teeth, you can proceed to brush your tongue with the residual toothpaste. Begin by reaching to the back of your tongue (but not too far back as it will trigger a gag response), and work gently towards the front of the tongue. Do not use too much force as the tongue is delicate.
Another tool that can be used is a tongue scraper. It is soft and flexible and designed to gently scrape debris and bacteria from the tongue. Similar to brushing, start from the back of the tongue and work gently towards the front.
If you gag easily, start slowly to get yourself used to the sensation of cleaning your tongue, and using a tongue scraper may be better compared to a brush.