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.