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Overgrowth of bacteria or other germs commonly causes a green tongue, though it can have other causes. It usually indicates an underlying condition and will clear up with treatment.
It’s normal for your tongue to turn green after eating or drinking something with green food coloring. However, if the greenish tint is unrelated to food coloring, you should see a doctor for a diagnosis.
The severity of a green tongue depends on its cause. If you know your green tongue came from eating or drinking something with green food coloring, there’s no reason to worry.
Consult a doctor if your green tongue has no obvious cause and accompanies other symptoms. It often indicates an overgrowth of bacteria your doctor can treat once they identify the cause.
Left untreated, the underlying health condition causing a green tongue can develop into a more severe infection or, more rarely, be a sign of oral cancer.
Green tongue discoloration often starts as a white coating before gradually changing. This color change has many causes, including:
Hairy tongue, also called coated tongue, is a benign condition that involves the growth of hair-like projections on the tongue, known as papillae.
Papillae are made up of a substance called keratin. When keratin accumulates instead of shedding as usual, it creates a rough surface or coating on the tongue.
Bacteria and yeast flourish on this coating, typically giving it a whitish appearance. If you have a hairy tongue, it can become greenish over time from certain foods, beverages, and tobacco.
Hairy tongue is harmless and often asymptomatic, though some consider it a cosmetic concern. It commonly develops from dehydration or certain medications, such as chemotherapy and antibiotics.1 It usually resolves by treating the underlying cause.
Oral thrush is a fungal infection of the mouth that can turn the tongue green or yellow. It develops from an overgrowth of Candida (a yeast).
You might be more prone to thrush if you take certain medications, such as antibiotics, have a condition that suppresses your immune system, use tobacco, or have poor oral hygiene.2
It’s easy to treat oral thrush with an antifungal medication. See your doctor if you have these symptoms.
Geographic tongue is an inflammatory disorder that creates patches on the side and tops of the tongue. It’s a benign condition with an unknown cause, though some risk factors may include emotional stress, hormonal changes, and allergies.3
The patches on a geographic tongue appear as bald, red areas with a white border. However, they can develop a greenish tint over time.
Geographic tongue usually has no additional symptoms and doesn’t require treatment.
However, some affected people may notice a burning sensation on their tongue with certain types of food. Topical treatments can help soothe discomfort but won’t change the tongue’s appearance.
Leukoplakia affects the mucous membranes of the mouth, creating discolored patches on the tongue and cheeks. These patches can appear greenish. The exact cause is unknown, though leukoplakia may be linked to tobacco and alcohol use.
The patches associated with leukoplakia are:4
Leukoplakia is typically harmless but may also be an early warning sign of oral cancer. Consult your doctor if you have symptoms of leukoplakia.
Lichen planus is a common disorder that causes a rash-like discoloration in the mouth. You might also notice a greenish tint on your tongue and/or an itchy skin rash.
It’s not clear what causes lichen planus, though 1 in 100 people will get it during their lives.5 It may be connected to hepatitis C, certain medications, or an autoimmune reaction.
Common symptoms of oral lichen planus are:
Lichen planus often goes away on its own. However, it can be an early indicator of oral cancer. You should see a doctor for a biopsy if you have symptoms.
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by bacteria. It makes sores form on your genitals and in or around your mouth. These sores may be greenish in color.
An oral sore from syphilis is typically painless and may change colors over time. It will go away whether or not you receive treatment. However, you should seek treatment quickly.
Left untreated, long-term syphilis can cause complications such as:6
Syphilis can lay dormant in your body for years without symptoms. If you’ve ever had symptoms of syphilis, you should consult a doctor for antibiotic treatment.
A lesion or sore that doesn’t heal can be a sign of oral cancer. That sore can turn green from particular food or drinks or bacterial growth, but this is rare.
You may notice other symptoms of oral cancer like:
Seek immediate medical attention if you have concerning, persistent symptoms that may indicate oral cancer. The earlier you catch it, the easier it is to treat.
A handful of other factors may influence the development of a green tongue, including:
Most causes of a green tongue can be treated with prescription medication or proper oral hygiene.
The best treatment depends on the underlying health condition and may include:
A green tongue often indicates bacterial overgrowth. Many causes of a greenish tongue (such as oral thrush or syphilis) are treated with antifungal medications or antibiotics.
If your green tongue is caused by inflammation, your doctor may prescribe medicine such as antihistamines or corticosteroids. Treatment for oral cancer includes surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy.
Consult a doctor before treating a green tongue at home. However, there are home remedies you can use to relieve symptoms and speed healing.
If you’re recovering from a bacterial infection or overgrowth, you can try:
You can also take over-the-counter pain relievers if inflammation is causing your green tongue. With all causes of a green tongue, practicing good oral hygiene is crucial for recovery.
In most cases, a green tongue will resolve by treating the underlying health condition. It typically doesn’t indicate a severe health condition, though it can be an early sign of oral cancer in rare cases.
Always contact a health professional as soon as possible if you have a green tongue and other symptoms. Catching any medical concern early will improve your outcome.
Your tongue color can tell you a lot about your health. See our table below to discover what your tongue color means:7, 8
|What It Means
|Geographic tongue, allergic reaction, vitamin B deficiency
|Oral thrush, leukoplakia, geographic tongue, hairy tongue, mouth ulcers, lichen planus
|Hairy tongue, oral thrush, leukoplakia, geographic tongue, syphilis, lichen planus
|Eczema, leukoplakia, geographic tongue
|Poor oral hygiene, bacterial overgrowth, hairy tongue, jaundice
|Poor oral hygiene, excess of certain foods, dry mouth, medication side effects
|Low oxygen content in blood, eczema, blood disorders
|Poor circulation, heart conditions, Kawasaki disease
|Black hairy tongue, tobacco use, medication side effects
You can do your part to maintain a healthy tongue and prevent oral health issues by:
A green tongue has many causes, including oral thrush, hairy tongue, lichen planus, and oral cancer. It tends to develop due to bacterial overgrowth on the tongue.
A doctor can treat the underlying condition with antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medications, or cancer treatment. The color of your tongue should go back to normal with treatment.
Keep your tongue healthy by practicing good oral hygiene, hydrating yourself, and maintaining a healthy diet. Always contact your doctor if you notice unusual color changes in your tongue and/ or mouth.
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