Health: A furry shade of grey

A Question of Health
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OVER THE years, I have occasionally got a grey, furry tongue, but only for a short time, and then it clears up. For the last year it has remained grey. My excellent doctor says: "It comes and goes; I wouldn't worry about it." But I do. I am 50, eat organic vegetarian food, drink a bottle of wine a week and smoke a pipe. Can I do anything about this unattractive and, to me, ominous condition?

This sounds like black hairy tongue, which is common and, as you say, unattractive. But it is not ominous. It is probably caused by a combination of factors including bacterial overgrowth, smoking and possibly even red wine, which contains enzymes that contribute to this problem in some individuals. Antibiotics, particularly if you are taking them long-term, can also alter the balance of micro-organisms in your mouth and turn the tongue grey or black. You should stop smoking, avoid red wine and gently brush your tongue every morning with a soft toothbrush.

I CAN often hear my heart beating in my ear when I am lying in bed at night. It is not painful or unpleasant, but I worry that it is the first sign of heart disease. Should I do anything about it?

Many healthy people suffer from this symptom, but it is very unlikely to be a sign of heart disease or another illness. If you lie in certain positions, and if the room is quiet, the sounds of a heartbeat can be transmitted to the ear and heard quite easily. If you hear a whooshing sound with every heartbeat, it could be a sign of narrowing in one of the carotid arteries in the neck. The next time you see your doctor, ask him to listen to your carotid arteries. If these sound normal, you should relax and try to find a position in bed which does not let you tune in to your heartbeat.

MY SEVEN-year-old son has been found to have very poor vision in one of his eyes, which cannot be corrected with glasses. The optometrist says this is likely to have been caused by a squint when he was younger, but he never had a squint.

If the vision in one eye is very poor and cannot be corrected with glasses, it has usually been caused by one of two reasons - either a squint or an imbalance between the two eyes. If one eye, for example, is very long- sighted and the other eye has normal vision, the long-sighted eye will be "ignored" by the brain and the vision in that eye will fail to develop. Similarly, if one eye is out of alignment, even by a relatively small amount which cannot be easily detected, that eye will eventually lose its ability to see normally. This condition is known as amblyopia. If it is picked up in early childhood, it can usually be treated by patching the good eye and forcing the child to use the weaker eye. But by the age of seven it may be too late to do anything to improve the weak eye.

Please send your questions to A Question of Health, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL; fax 0171-293 2182; or e- mail to Dr Kavalier regrets that he is unable to respond personally to questions