Vitamin Deficiencies and a Swollen Scalloped Tongue

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Vitamin B12 is one of the most important nutrients for oral health.
Image Credit: Eugeniusz Dudzinski/iStock/GettyImages

You might not think about it much, but your tongue can give you some serious clues about the state of your health. A swollen, scalloped tongue can often be one of the first signs of vitamin or mineral deficiencies.

Indentations on your tongue may also signal more serious issues, including problems with your thyroid. If you have a scalloped tongue, make an appointment with your doctor for a physical to determine what could be causing the problem.

Read more: 10 Weird Signs You're Not Getting Enough Nutrients

Scalloped Tongue and Vitamin B12

According to a small study published in BMC Oral Health in May 2016, vitamin B12 is one of the most important nutrients for oral health. In addition to a swollen, scalloped tongue, vitamin b12 deficiency may cause tongue pain, a red tongue, mouth ulcers, cracks in the corners of the mouth, itching and burning.

A deficiency in vitamin B12 doesn't just affect your tongue and mouth, warns Harvard Medical School. It can also cause:

  • Numbness or tingling in the hands, legs or feet
  • Difficulty walking
  • Balance problems, like staggering
  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty thinking (brain fog)
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Anemia

Because low vitamin B12 levels can cause such a wide array of symptoms, this condition can be tricky to diagnose. As Harvard Medical School points out, early detection and treatment are important since an untreated deficiency can lead to severe nerve damage and blood disorders.

In most cases, a vitamin B12 deficiency is treated with either dietary supplements or vitamin shots. The type of treatment you receive depends on why you developed this problem in the first place. If your diet was simply lacking adequate amounts of vitamin B12, you may be able to correct a deficiency with supplements. However, if you have difficulty absorbing vitamin B12 from food, you may need injections.

If your doctor recommends increasing your dietary intake of vitamin B12, you can get the vitamin through foods like:

  • Clams
  • Liver
  • Trout
  • Salmon
  • Beef
  • Yogurt
  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Chicken
  • Fortified cereals

In general, this nutrient occurs naturally in meat, fish and dairy. Therefore, vegans and vegetarians are more likely to develop deficiencies. Some cereal brands and other food products are fortified with vitamin B12, so make sure you choose those — especially if you don't consume animal foods.

If a vitamin B12 deficiency is suspected, your doctor will work with you to confirm or rule out a deficiency. If you're lacking this nutrient, he or she will likely conduct another series of tests to determine what's causing the deficiency and then recommend the best course of action.

Iron and Indentations on Tongue

It's not just vitamin B12 deficiency that can cause indentations on the tongue, though. Although iron is a mineral and not a vitamin, if you don't get enough of it, you may end up with a swollen, scalloped tongue and some other uncomfortable symptoms.

Although everyone is different, common symptoms of iron deficiency include:

  • Abnormal paleness
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Increased heart rate (tachycardia)
  • Enlarged spleen
  • A condition called pica, where you have a strong desire to eat strange, non-food substances like dirt or ice

As with a vitamin B12 deficiency, the treatment for an iron deficiency typically consists of a high-iron diet or iron supplements. The best dietary sources of this mineral include:

  • Meats (beef, pork, lamb, liver, and other organ meats)
  • Poultry (chicken, duck and turkey — especially the dark meat)
  • Fish
  • Leafy greens (broccoli, kale and collard greens)
  • Lima beans
  • Black-eyed peas
  • Fortified cereals and bread

Your doctor may also run tests to determine if you have undiagnosed blood loss, which may cause iron deficiency since this mineral is a major component of your red blood cells.

Read more: Types of Iron Supplements

A Word of Caution

While a swollen, scalloped tongue may simply be the result of a vitamin or mineral deficiency that can be easily corrected, it may also be a sign that something more serious is going on — or starting to develop. According to the National Academy of Hypothyroidism, a scalloped tongue is a surefire sign that there's some type of inflammation going on in your body.

An inflammatory reaction may cause the tongue to swell and push against the sides of your teeth, which gives it the scalloped appearance and causes the ridges on the tongue's sides. Inflammation may also result from toxin buildup in your body. Toxins can cause various health problems, but one of the more significant things that they can do is interfere with the proper functioning of your thyroid gland.

If left unaddressed, this can eventually disrupt your body's ability to produce thyroid hormones and lead to an underactive thyroid — a condition called hypothyroidism. That's why it's a good idea to get any tongue abnormalities checked out by your doctor instead of trying to treat them at home or use natural remedies.

Checking Your Tongue

You've probably heard of self-breast exams or self-skin checks to monitor for early changes in your body and health, but did you know that keeping an eye on your tongue can also be helpful? If you look at your tongue daily, you'll be able to see changes or abnormalities as soon as they start so that you can seek medical attention in the early stages.

The first thing you want to pay attention to is its size. Your tongue should fit comfortably in your mouth, with the tip of it resting just behind your incisors, or front teeth, according to Stanford Medicine. It shouldn't push hard against the teeth or feel swollen and uncomfortable. It also shouldn't push out the sublingual glands, which lie directly under the tongue, so that they feel swollen when you touch your neck.

When you stick out your tongue and look in the mirror, it should be pink and covered with small, darker dots called papillae. It should also be smooth, without any cracks, cuts or hairs. If you see any color changes, such as redness or white spots, or deviations from your normal appearance, like cracks, or indentations or ridges on the tongue, the Cleveland Clinic notes that it might be time to check in with your doctor.

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