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A yellow tongue is generally a temporary condition and not a cause for concern. Despite its appearance, it’s usually a benign condition.
The reason for a yellow tongue will depend on the cause. Your tongue may appear blotchy or you may have a solid yellow patch on its surface.
There are several possible causes for your tongue to appear yellow or discolored. Most of them are harmless, but some less common causes, such as jaundice, are serious.
Here are six possible causes of a yellow tongue:
Your tongue is covered in tiny bumps or tufts called papillae. Poor oral hygiene can cause bacteria and dead cells to accumulate between your papillae to the point of discoloring your tongue.
Dry mouth (xerostomia) can also contribute to a yellow tongue. This is because saliva helps regulate the bacteria in your mouth. If your mouth isn’t producing enough saliva, bacteria that may discolor your tongue can build up over time.
Bacterial overgrowth on the tongue can be treated with good oral hygiene. Regular brushing, flossing, and rinsing helps keep oral bacteria under control.
If dry mouth is a contributing factor, its underlying cause may need to be treated. Smoking, certain illnesses, and some medications can cause dry mouth.
Hairy tongue, often known as black hairy tongue, occurs when the papillae covering your tongue elongate. Despite the name, the resulting color can be anywhere from black to brown to yellow.
Your papillae can become lengthened due to a buildup of keratin, a protein that occurs naturally in your body (your hair and nails are largely made of keratin).
These long papillae can cause your tongue to appear hairy, especially as they become stained over time by food and bacteria.
Despite its potentially disturbing appearance, hairy tongue isn’t life-threatening. Smoking, poor oral hygiene, and dry mouth can all contribute to the development of hairy tongue.1, 2
A soft diet may also be a contributing factor to hairy tongue. This is because harder foods tend to have an abrasive effect on the papillae, keeping them from getting long.2, 3
Hairy tongue can be treated by:
Geographic tongue is a condition where patches of the tongue lose their papillae. These patches can change shape and size in a matter of hours or even minutes.4
The patches seen in geographic tongue can be sensitive or even painful. Spicy or acidic foods may trigger the condition.
Geographic tongue doesn’t have a clear cause or a cure, but fortunately, it is benign.
In some cases, topical medications such as corticosteroids and anesthetics are prescribed. Severe cases may be treated with drugs that are more often used to prevent organ transplant rejection.4
Oral thrush, also called oral candidiasis, is an oral fungal (yeast) infection. It’s caused by the yeast Candida albicans, which is normally a harmless part of your oral and gut flora.5
Cottage cheese-like white or yellow patches are commonly seen with oral thrush. They can be accompanied by a burning or painful sensation. These patches can be scraped off. There may be an underlying red base present.
A weakened immune system, a diet high in simple carbohydrates, and taking antibiotics can all make oral thrush more likely to develop.6
Oral thrush is generally treated with antifungal medications.
Jaundice is a yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes. It may also include yellowing of the tongue or the inside of the mouth.
It’s caused by a buildup of bilirubin, which is a byproduct of red blood cells breaking down. The bilirubin accumulates in cases where the liver can’t break it down properly.7
Jaundice warrants immediate medical attention. It generally signals a problem with the liver or pancreas, such as:
Some medications, malaria, and other diseases can also cause jaundice. Active smokers also show increased blood bilirubin levels.
Treatment for jaundice depends on the underlying condition. Surgery may be indicated in cases of obstructed bile ducts.
Jaundice may also be managed by treating any underlying illness or stopping use of certain medications.
Coffee, tea, and foods or supplements containing yellow dye, such as candy or vitamin tablets, can stain your tongue yellow.
Some mouthwashes, such as those containing chlorhexidine or witch hazel, can also cause tongue discoloration.
Certain medications can also cause your tongue to change color, such as oral contraceptives, anti-malaria medications, and chemotherapy drugs.
Tobacco use is a major contributing factor to yellow tongue or other tongue discoloration. This is because it can stain your tongue and dry out your mouth. It is also a risk factor for hairy tongue.1, 3
Eczema, an autoimmune condition, can weaken the immune system and allow bacteria to build up on your tongue.8 Psoriasis is another autoimmune disorder that can change your tongue color.9
Gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining) can also cause a yellow coating to develop on your tongue.10
A yellow tongue may be a sign of diabetes or prediabetes in some cases.11
Depending on the condition causing your tongue discoloration, you may experience other symptoms.
In cases of hairy tongue or bacterial overgrowth, you may experience a bad taste, halitosis (bad breath), or a gagging sensation. Some people, however, show no symptoms.
Geographic tongue is often asymptomatic aside from appearance as well. In some cases, though, geographic tongue can cause pain when eating certain foods.
Oral thrush can cause painful burning sensations and a cotton feeling in the mouth. It may also alter or reduce your sense of taste.
If you have jaundice, a yellow tongue will probably not be the only symptom. Jaundice mostly affects the skin and the whites of the eyes. You may also notice pale, fatty stools and dark urine.
A yellow tongue may be nothing to worry about, but a visit to your doctor can help resolve any concerns you may have.
There are also cases where a yellow tongue may indicate a more serious underlying condition. You should see a doctor if you have:
Jaundice in particular should receive medical attention as soon as possible.
To diagnose the cause of your yellow tongue, your doctor will examine your tongue and mouth.
Your doctor can study your symptoms and medical history to rule out certain causes. In some cases, they may take blood samples.
Treatment for yellow tongue varies according to the cause. In most cases, improving oral hygiene is enough to get rid of tongue discoloration.
Your doctor or dentist may conduct a professional cleaning. They may also recommend quitting tobacco if you are an active user.
Most conditions causing a yellow tongue are benign and not life-threatening. A visit to your doctor may help you manage symptoms or eliminate an infection.
However, untreated jaundice can lead to a potentially debilitating or even fatal buildup of bilirubin. The underlying cause of the jaundice may also require urgent medical attention.
The best way to prevent a yellow tongue, or other tongue discoloration, is to practice good oral hygiene. This includes regularly brushing your teeth and tongue and rinsing out your mouth.
Lowering your intake of simple carbohydrates can also reduce the accumulation of oral bacteria or yeasts that discolor your tongue.6
Most causes of yellow tongue are harmless and easily remedied. Good oral hygiene and avoiding tobacco can help keep your tongue looking normal.
Rarely, however, a yellow tongue may indicate jaundice, which can be a sign of serious illness. Consult your doctor as soon as possible if you notice yellowing of your skin and eyes or any additional systems.
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