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What is a Tongue Depressor?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A tongue depressor is a medical instrument which is used to hold the tongue against the floor of the mouth during examinations. Without the use of a tongue depressor, the patient's tongue may drift up, impeding the practitioner's view of the mouth and throat. Many medical supply catalogs sell tongue depressors, and they are also available from craft stores, because some people like to use them in craft projects.

Traditional tongue depressors are wooden with rounded ends. The devices are designed to be kept in a clean, but not necessarily sterile, environment; tongue depressors do not need to be sterile as a general rule because they are not being introduced to a highly vulnerable area of the body. However, they are usually discarded after use to reduce the risk of passing microorganisms between patients, and some companies also make individually packaged tongue depressors which are intended to be as clean as possible.

While it is technically possible to use metals and plastics for tongue depressors, the effort of cleaning and sterilizing such materials between patients is generally deemed too much work. It is more efficient and effective to use disposable tongue depressors, since they are routinely used in patient examinations.

To use a tongue depressor, a care provider asks the patient to open the mouth wide, and then places the instrument on the tongue and gently bears down to hold the tongue in place. Some patients have a heightened gag reflex and may gag if the tongue depressor is placed too far back in the mouth or if it brushes against the uvula. Patients may also have sore and tender mouths, especially if they are going to the doctor because of a mouth problem, in which case care must be taken to minimize pain when placing the tongue depressor. Once the examination is over, the instrument can be discarded.

Some companies make flavored tongue depressors, used most commonly in pediatrics although some adult patients may find them amusing or beneficially distracting. Common flavorings include grape and cherry, and others may be ordered by special request in some cases. It is advisable to keep a stock of unflavored instruments in case a child would prefer them.

In crafts, tongue depressors can be used in a variety of creative ways. Among other things, they are an excellent shape for mixing and smearing paint, and they can be used to reinforce structures and models.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a TheHealthBoard researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By orangey03 — On Jul 18, 2011

My daughter and I go to the same doctor, because she sees both children and adults. Because of this, she keeps a stock of medical tools that cater to both ages.

Tongue depressors are one example. For adults, she keeps a glass jar of regular wooden depressors with no flavor. For children, she keeps a jar of grape and strawberry flavored depressors. Plus, she’s considerate enough to ask each child which flavor he or she would prefer.

Though the depressors do make my daughter gag a bit, I think that looking forward to the flavor prevents her from totally refusing to have one placed in her mouth. At least she gets to taste something good while she chokes!

By seag47 — On Jul 18, 2011

@cloudel - I’m surprised the nurse practitioner went by sight alone in her diagnosis. Usually they test for strep just to be sure.

I took my son to a CNP for the same symptoms as your husband. He didn’t see any pus in his throat, but he did a cotton swab test just to double check. The tongue depressor didn’t cause too much gagging, but that long cotton swab really made my boy choke. I think he must have spit on the CNP! He was probably prepared for that, though. I’m sure he sees a lot of spitting and coughing when sticking things down people’s throats!

The swab test came back negative, so the CNP was correct in his original thinking. He diagnosed my son with the same condition as your husband.

By cloudel — On Jul 17, 2011

I had to take my husband to the urgent care clinic last Sunday. He had an extremely swollen throat and fever.

The nurse practitioner used a wood tongue depressor, and she told him he might experience a gag reflex. I thought it would have been worse. I expected him to gag and cough all over her, but he just made a few light choking noises before she finished.

She didn’t see any of the pus pockets associated with strep throat, so she diagnosed him with an upper respiratory infection. Tongue depressors are really useful diagnostic tools.

By kylee07drg — On Jul 16, 2011

Just yesterday, I had to go to my doctor because my throat was so swollen I could barely swallow, and I had a fever over 100 degrees. So, he used the dreaded wooden tongue depressor.

I think that since he put it on my tongue before telling me to say, “Ahhh,” I wasn’t able to do it very well, and that made him press harder. After my first weak attempt at making the sound, he said, “No, Ahhh,” and I tried again. It still wasn’t good enough for him, so he moved the depressor back further. I started gagging and my hand reached up for his arm. I don’t know if he saw my hand or not, but he removed the depressor. I didn’t mean to, but I coughed on him. I hope I didn’t infect him!

Anyway, his efforts paid off, because he was able to diagnose me with strep throat and pump me full of powerful drugs. They worked within hours. I started swallowing better, and the fever went away by bedtime.

By Sara007 — On Jul 16, 2011

For those who are into crafts tongue depressors can be a great tool for constructing some pretty fantastic projects. While Popsicle sticks are usually the first thing people head for when making a replica of a building I have found that tongue depressors are a better choice because of their larger size. It takes less materials overall to make a big project.

My kids had to make a replica of a pioneer village for their history class and we got some really great log cabins out of the bag of tongue depressors I picked up. They were also quicker to paint and seemed to be a bit sturdier than Popsicle sticks.

By wander — On Jul 15, 2011

@poppyseed - Your comment about doctors taking revenge through tongue depressors made me chuckle.

I can certainly a recall a few of my friends sharing your sentiments after their visits to a doctor. For myself though I have always found my doctor to be really gentle when it comes to the dreaded tongue depressor stage of the checkup.

I have a pretty bad gag reflex so it is completely understandable why you would worry about hurling on your doctor. I have found though that if you make the, "Ahhhh," sound while really using your tongue muscles to keep it out of the way the doctor barely has to touch you with the depressor. I think a lot of us have an automatic reaction to flinch away when someone opens our mouth so it makes the whole thing worse.

By blackDagger — On Jul 14, 2011

@poppyseed – Sorry, dude, I just got to disagree with you on this one. I get it; I am not a real big fan of the big stick either, but I would rather my doctor thoroughly check me out than to do a halfway job.

I pay good money, and so does my insurance, when I go to the doctor. And, because it’s my greenbacks on the line, I want her to check every single inch of my body when I go in.

Plus, if something did happen to be wrong down in my intestines that could only be seen from my throat, I’d sure want her to find it! (That is only a joke; I'm pretty sure we both know that she can't really see our intestines because of the tongue depressor. It just feels like it.)

By mabeT — On Jul 14, 2011

@poppyseed – That is too funny, and I totally understand your sentiments. I guess being a witness to the actual gag reflex in action all over the good, ole doc’s shoes has convinced me of the plausibility of your claim.

My daughter had a stomach bug of some sort and she had terrible nausea. I took her to the doctor because she was also running a high fever, and I was afraid it might be food poisoning.

The doctor wanted to look in her throat and my little girl just shook her head, “No.” I guess she knew what was likely to happen as bad as she was feeling.

I’ve got to admit that the doctor was so harsh with her over it that I was sort of amused and a little bit happy when he left to clean the little, sick girl’s puke in room number three’s puke out of his pretty, Italian loafers.

By poppyseed — On Jul 14, 2011

Is it just me, or does it seem like your doctor is just trying to get you back for inconveniencing their day when they cram that huge tongue depressor down your throat?

I am convinced that they do not need to see my intestines from my throat (and that’s exactly what it feels like they are trying to look at).

Every time they tell me to open up and say, “Ahhhh,” I feel like I’m going to puke all over their tongue depressor, their pretty, white smock and their shiny black shoes.

Who’s with me? Is the whole tongue depressor issue just a form of medical professional revenge or something that they really need? Revenge, I say! Revenge!

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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