Seeing a white tongue reflected in the mirror when you are about to brush your teeth can be alarming. Perhaps it looks like your entire tongue is covered in a white coating or maybe you just have a few white areas on your tongue. This condition is usually not serious however, and if you know a few facts about improving your mouth care regimen you can easily rid yourself of the problem and prevent it from coming back.
The most common causes of a white tongue are related to oral hygiene. Your tongue is lined with little bumps called papillae. Sometimes these papillae become inflamed and swollen. When these structures become enlarged, debris may get trapped between them. This build up is often what causes your tongue to become white. Some of the debris that may collect between papillae include food, bacteria, fungi, dead cells, dirt. This debris also can result in the release of sulfur compounds which can cause your breath to smell like rotten eggs.
If excess plaque is the cause of your white tongue, this is easily taken care of by brushing your tongue every time you brush your teeth. A tongue scraper can also be used to help clear the tongue of unwanted particles. Using a mouthwash proven to kill bacteria and plaque can also help decrease and prevent the buildup that is causing your white tongue. Be careful, though, not to frequently use an alcohol-based mouthwash as this can dry out your mouth, worsening the problem. In order to rid yourself of the bacteria residing below the tongues surface, you can use an oxygenating toothpaste.
There are many other conditions which may also be the cause of your white tongue. These include:
- Poor brushing and flossing
- Common colds, flu or infections
- Side effects of medications
- Irritants in the environment
- Mouth breathing
- Alcohol consumption, tobacco use or second hand smoke
- Conditions leading to inflammation of the tongue inflammation, such as Glossitis
- Spicy foods cooked with hot peppers such as habanero and jalapeño
While some of these causes can be hard to treat, others are easy to address. Make sure you drink plenty of water daily, since a dry mouth can lead to this developing a white tongue. Check the side effects for any medications you are taking and ask your doctor whether your medication may be the cause of your white tongue. If so, they may be able to change you prescription, give you something else to treat this condition or provide suggestions for how to best to otherwise address your white tongue problem. Avoid spicy foods long enough to determine whether this makes a difference in your tongue’s appearance. Limit alcohol consumption and avoid tobacco products.
Sometimes a white tongue may indicate something other than problems with oral hygiene or the potential causes listed above. The three most common causes of this condition other than those already mentioned include:
Oral Thrush or Candida: a yeast infection that occurs inside your mouth. This condition can look like you have white areas on your tongue which may resemble cottage cheese. Candida can sometimes spread to other areas of your mouth and throat leading to pain or difficulty swallowing as well as being the cause of your white tongue. Oral Thrush is most frequently found in young children and older adults or in those whose immune system may be compromised. People who have diabetes and those using inhaled steroids or who are taking antibiotics are also at increased risk of developing oral thrush. Should your white tongue be the result of oral thrush there are medications and mouth rinses that can be prescribed by your doctor to treat it.
Leukoplakia: a condition caused by excessive growth of cells in the mouth. This may take the form of thick white patches on your tongue and the inside of your mouth. It’s possible to get this condition from irritants such as tobacco and alcohol, though it can also occur as the result of inflammatory conditions or denture irritation. The patches are harmless by themselves and usually go away on their own. However, it is important to get them checked by a doctor as in rare cases they can lead to the development of mouth cancer.
Oral lichen planus: a condition which may appear as a series raised white lines on your tongue that resembles lace. While the causes of this condition are not fully known, it usually will go away on it own. If it is long lasting or severe you may need to take corticosteroids.
Experts recommend that you check your tongue daily when you brush your teeth to see if it’s appearance seems unusual. In the case of white tongue, proper oral hygiene which includes brushing, flossing and tongue scraping, can frequently resolve the condition or even prevent it from occurring. If your white tongue is not resolved in two weeks, it is a good idea to see a doctor who can better determine the potential causes and provide you with the appropriate treatment.
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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. (2015). Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education.
Stoppler, M. C., (2017, January 30). White Tongue: Symptoms & Signs. Medicinet. Retrieved from https://www.medicinenet.com/white_tongue/symptoms.htm
Weiss, S., (2017, December 7). What is That Nasty Film on Your Tongue? Men’s Health. Retrieved from https://www.menshealth.com/health/white-tongue-causes