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In most cases, a yellow tongue is a benign, temporary condition caused by a buildup of dead cells. The yellow color typically resolves with time and good oral hygiene practices.
More rarely, yellow tongue discoloration can indicate an underlying issue that needs treatment. Most causes are harmless, but some less common conditions, such as jaundice, are severe.
While a yellow tongue will often go away on its own, you should seek medical attention if it doesn’t. You should see a doctor if you have:
Jaundice, in particular, requires medical attention as soon as possible.
Here are some possible causes of a yellow tongue:
Bacteria and dead cells can accumulate on your tongue if you don’t practice good oral hygiene. This buildup is what can cause the yellow tinge.
Your tongue has tiny bumps called papillae. Bacteria and dead cells can gather between your papillae to the point of discoloration.
A dry mouth (xerostomia) can also contribute to a yellow tongue. You need adequate saliva to regulate oral bacteria. If your mouth isn’t producing enough saliva, it can cause an overgrowth.
You can treat bacterial overgrowth on the tongue with good oral hygiene. Regular brushing, flossing, and rinsing keep oral bacteria under control.
If dry mouth is a contributing factor, you should address the underlying cause. Smoking, having certain illnesses, and taking specific medications can cause dry mouth.
When your papillae elongate, they can become discolored. This discoloration turns your tongue black, brown, or yellow.
Despite its potentially alarming appearance, a hairy tongue isn’t life-threatening. You may develop it because of:1,2,3
Long papillae can give your tongue a yellowish tint, especially as the papillae become stained over time by food and bacteria.
If your hairy tongue results from poor oral hygiene habits, improving your routine can treat it. You should gently brush your tongue as part of your oral care routine.
You can also treat a hairy tongue by quitting tobacco, avoiding irritating mouthwashes, and avoiding foods and drinks with added dyes.
Geographic tongue is a benign condition where tongue patches lose their papillae. These patches, which can be sensitive or painful, appear whitish, reddish, or yellowish. They can change shape and size in hours or even minutes.4
It’s uncertain what causes geographic tongue, though spicy or acidic foods may trigger the condition.
In some cases, doctors prescribe topical medications such as corticosteroids and anesthetics. They may also treat severe cases with drugs that typically prevent organ transplant rejection.4
Oral thrush, also called oral candidiasis, is a fungal (yeast) infection. The yeast Candida albicans, a typically harmless part of your oral and gut flora, causes it.5
Cottage cheese-like white or yellow patches are standard with oral thrush. There may also be a burning or painful sensation. These patches can be scraped off, sometimes revealing an underlying red base.
A weakened immune system, a diet high in simple carbohydrates, and taking antibiotics can all put you at a higher risk for oral thrush.6
Healthcare providers often treat oral thrush with antifungal medications.
Jaundice is a severe condition where the skin and the whites of the eyes turn yellow. It may also include yellowing of the tongue or the inside of the mouth.
It occurs due to a buildup of bilirubin, a byproduct of red blood cells (RBC) breaking down. The bilirubin accumulates when the liver can’t break RBCs down properly.7
If you have symptoms of jaundice, you should seek medical attention immediately. It generally signals a problem with the liver or pancreas, such as cirrhosis, hepatitis, or cancer. However, it can also result from certain medications, diseases, and tobacco use.
Treatment for jaundice depends on the underlying condition. Surgery may be necessary in cases of obstructed bile ducts.
Coffee, tea, 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 cause tongue discoloration.
Certain medications can also cause your tongue to change color, including:
Several lifestyle habits and other conditions can cause a yellowish tongue, such as:
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 jaundice may also require urgent medical attention.
To diagnose yellow tongue, your doctor will examine your tongue and mouth.
Your doctor can study your symptoms and medical history to rule out specific 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 remove tongue discoloration.
Your doctor or dentist may conduct a professional cleaning. They may also recommend quitting tobacco if you are an active user.
You may experience other symptoms along with your tongue discoloration, including:
If you have many other symptoms beyond a yellow tongue, it can indicate an underlying condition. You should always contact your dentist if your situation doesn’t change with improved oral hygiene.
In the case of jaundice, a yellow tongue will rarely be the only symptom. You may also notice pale, fatty stools and dark urine.
Practicing good oral hygiene is the best way to prevent a yellow tongue or other tongue discoloration. A good routine includes regularly brushing your teeth and tongue and rinsing your mouth.
You should also quit smoking or tobacco use and discuss any medication's side effects with your doctor.
Lowering your intake of simple carbohydrates can also reduce the accumulation of oral bacteria or yeast that discolor your tongue.6
A yellow tongue is typically a temporary, benign condition caused by bacteria buildup. You can resolve it by improving your oral hygiene routine.
However, in some cases, a yellow tongue can indicate an underlying condition that needs further treatment. Other causes of a yellow or discolored tongue include oral thrush, geographic tongue, and tobacco use.
Rarely, a yellow tongue may indicate jaundice, which can be a sign of serious illness. Consult your doctor immediately if you notice yellowing of your skin and eyes or any additional symptoms.
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