Updated on February 9, 2024
7 min read

Why is My Tongue Green and How Can it Be Cured?

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Why Is My Tongue Green?

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.

How Serious is a Green Tongue? 

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.

What Causes a Green Tongue?

Green tongue discoloration often starts as a white coating before gradually changing. This color change has many causes, including:

Hairy Tongue

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

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).

symptoms of oral thrush

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 

Symptoms include:

  • White patches on the tongue that may change to yellow or green over time
  • Pain or bleeding of the patches
  • Loss of taste or unpleasant taste
  • Redness of the mouth and throat

It’s easy to treat oral thrush with an antifungal medication. See your doctor if you have these symptoms.

Geographic Tongue

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

Geographic Tongue

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

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.

Leukoplakia

The patches associated with leukoplakia are:4

  • White or gray, though they can appear greenish
  • Raised with a hard surface
  • Impossible to scrape away
  • Painful when exposed to spicy or acidic foods

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

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.

Lichen Planus

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:

  • White patches on the tongue that may become green
  • Shiny red or purple bumps on the skin
  • Burning sensation in the mouth

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

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

  • Internal organ damage
  • Muscle weakness
  • Cognitive issues
  • Changes in hearing or vision

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.

Oral Cancer

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:

  • A growth on the tongue
  • Bleeding of the tongue or gums
  • Numbness or tingling in the lips, face, and chin
  • Jaw or throat pain
  • Unexplained weight loss

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.

Other Causes

A handful of other factors may influence the development of a green tongue, including:

  • Poor dental hygiene
  • Discharge from an infected tongue or mouth piercing
  • Drug use
  • Medication side effects
  • Upper respiratory tract infection 
  • Temporary staining from items containing chlorophyll

How to Treat a Green Tongue

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:

Medical Treatments

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.

Home Remedies

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:

  • Replacing your toothbrush daily
  • Rinsing with saltwater
  • Eating yogurt or other probiotic foods

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.

Outlook for Green Tongue

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.

What Do Tongue Colors Reveal About Health?

Your tongue color can tell you a lot about your health. See our table below to discover what your tongue color means:7, 8

ColorWhat It Means
PinkHealthy
RedGeographic tongue, allergic reaction, vitamin B deficiency
WhiteOral thrush, leukoplakia, geographic tongue, hairy tongue, mouth ulcers, lichen planus
GreenHairy tongue, oral thrush, leukoplakia, geographic tongue, syphilis, lichen planus
GrayEczema, leukoplakia, geographic tongue
YellowPoor oral hygiene, bacterial overgrowth, hairy tongue, jaundice
OrangePoor oral hygiene, excess of certain foods, dry mouth, medication side effects
BlueLow oxygen content in blood, eczema, blood disorders
PurplePoor circulation, heart conditions, Kawasaki disease
BlackBlack hairy tongue, tobacco use, medication side effects

Tips for Maintaining a Healthy Tongue

You can do your part to maintain a healthy tongue and prevent oral health issues by:

  • Brushing your teeth twice and floss once daily
  • Brushing your tongue or use a tongue scraper daily to prevent bacterial buildup
  • Avoiding mouthwashes with harsh chemicals or a high alcohol content
  • Rinsing regularly with salt water
  • Staying hydrated
  • Maintaining a healthy diet 

Summary

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.

Last updated on February 9, 2024
8 Sources Cited
Last updated on February 9, 2024
All NewMouth content is medically reviewed and fact-checked by a licensed dentist or orthodontist to ensure the information is factual, current, and relevant.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only cite from current scientific research, such as scholarly articles, dentistry textbooks, government agencies, and medical journals. This also includes information provided by the American Dental Association (ADA), the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
  1. Coated/Hairy Tongue.” Division of Oral Medicine and Dentistry, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, 2016.
  2. Oral thrush in adults.” NHS Inform, NHS, 2023.
  3. Geographic Tongue.” The American Academy of Oral Medicine, 2023.
  4. Leukoplakia Information.” Mount Sinai, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, 2023.
  5. Lichen Planus.” Johns Hopkins Medicine, The Johns Hopkins University, 2023.
  6. Syphilis – CDC Basic Fact Sheet.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Department of Health and Human Services, 2022.
  7. Sore or white tongue.” NHS, Crown, 2023.
  8. Yu, Z., et al. “Objective research on tongue manifestation of patients with eczema.” Technology and Health Care, National Library of Medicine, 2017.
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