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Updated on October 3, 2022

White Tongue - Causes, Treatment & When to See a Dr

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White Tongue

A white tongue results from overgrowth of the papillae and a build up of bacteria, food debris, and dead cells. 

Papillae are tiny protrusions on the surface of your tongue. The particle buildup causes them to swell, creating a grayish white discoloration.

Discoloration of the tongue is also caused by other factors, including:

  • Mild dehydration
  • Disease
  • Dry mouth
  • Infection
  • Irritation
  • Smoking 

Having a discolored tongue can be a symptom of several harmless conditions. It only rarely indicates a serious illness.

Potential Causes of a Tongue Discoloration 

Several health conditions can make your tongue change in color. These are:

1. Lichen planus

Lichen planus is a rash that affects different parts of the body, including the:

  • Mouth
  • Scalp
  • Genitals
  • Skin 

This condition is not contagious or severe. It often doesn’t have other symptoms, so treatment is unnecessary.

You can expect lichen planus to go away within 2 years in most cases. However, rashes in the mouth can take longer to go away. Lichen planus can also be harder to treat if there’s pain.

2. Leukoplakia

Leukoplakia appears as white spots on the tongue, which are precancerous lesions.

Some researchers believe the disease is linked to tobacco use. However, it’s officially known as an idiopathic disease, meaning the cause of leukoplakia is unknown. 

This condition is common in middle-aged and older men. Doctors can diagnose this disease through a biopsy, but it’s an invasive and expensive procedure.

3. Geographic tongue

Geographic tongue is also known as benign migratory glossitis. It’s a condition where the top and sides of your tongue don’t have papillae.

Irregular red spots with white serpentine borders characterize the condition. In most cases, treatment isn’t necessary.

4. Mouth ulcer

Mouth ulcers, such as aphthous ulcers (canker sores), are painful. They can be uncomfortable but are usually harmless. Most people find that they clear up by themselves within a week or two.

Some inner parts of your mouth that can be affected by mouth ulcers include:

  • Lips 
  • Cheeks 
  • Tongue

These sores are round or oval and white, red, yellow, or gray. If the sores spread, it can be hard to eat, drink, or brush your teeth.

5. Oral Candidiasis

Oral candidiasis is also called oral thrush. It’s a condition caused by a fungus called Candida.

Candida usually lives on your skin and inside the body without causing problems. It commonly stays in areas like the:

  • Mouth
  • Throat
  • Gut
  • Vagina

A candidiasis infection can occur after taking antibiotics or if your immune system is compromised.

Some of its symptoms include:

  • White patches inside the mouth
  • Redness or soreness
  • Loss of taste
  • Pain while eating or swallowing
  • Cracking or redness at the corners of the mouth

6. Syphilis

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). It can cause serious health problems without treatment, and each stage of infection has different signs and symptoms.

During the primary stage, sores occur where the infection first entered your body. This can be around the:

  • Lips or mouth
  • Penis
  • Vagina
  • Rectum

These sores are firm, round, and painless. They usually last around 3 to 6 weeks and can heal without treatment. 

However, the infection can move on to later stages without treatment. It begins to affect the body’s different organ systems during the tertiary stage.

7. Oral Cancer

Oral cancer develops in areas like:

  • The tongue
  • The lining of the mouth and gums
  • Underneath the tongue
  • The base of the tongue
  • The back of the mouth

Oral cancer often occurs in people over the age of 40. It also affects men more than women.

Many cases of oral cancer are related to tobacco use, alcohol use, and/or human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. Sun exposure can also cause lip cancer.

How to Get Rid of Discoloration of the Tongue

Here are some simple home remedies dentists recommend:

Good Oral Hygiene

Having good oral hygiene is one of the most effective ways to get rid of a white tongue. You should brush your teeth and tongue twice a day with a fluoridated toothpaste. You should also floss your teeth once a day.

Healthy Lifestyle

A healthy lifestyle can get rid of a white tongue. Drink plenty of water to keep your mouth hydrated.

Eat foods rich in vitamins and fiber. Avoid excessively salty, spicy, and acidic food. Also, don’t smoke or drink too much alcohol.

Professional Treatments

A white tongue is usually not a cause for concern. However, you can seek professional treatment if you have any of the diseases listed above.

A doctor may prescribe medicine for lichen planus if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Pain
  • Burning
  • Redness
  • Blisters
  • Sores
  • Ulcers

If you have a geographic tongue, you might experience a burning or sharp sensation. Doctors may advise you to avoid certain kinds of foods that may aggravate this sensation. 

Doctors treat a mild to moderate case of oral candidiasis with antifungal medicine. 

If oral cancer is detected early, you can undergo surgery. If the condition is further along, doctors may prescribe a combination of radiation and chemotherapy.

Can You Prevent a Discolored Tongue?

You can prevent a white tongue by using a soft-bristled toothbrush to gently brush your teeth, tongue, and sides of the mouth. You can also see a dentist for regular checkups and oral cleanings.

Taking probiotics such as yogurt can also prevent yeast infections and harmful strains of bacteria from developing in the mouth.

When to See a Dentist

You should go to the dentist if the white patches on your tongue do not subside after a week of home remedies.

If you have a mouth ulcer, you should see a dentist if the ulcer:

  • Lasts longer than 3 weeks
  • Recurs
  • Is painful and red 

You should also see a dentist if you experience symptoms like:

  • Sore tongue
  • Burning sensation
  • Open sores
  • Loss of taste
  • Difficulty chewing, swallowing, and/or speaking
  • Fever
  • Rash
  • Ear pain
  • Difficulty moving jaw or tongue
  • Swelling of the jaw
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Summary

A white tongue results from overgrowth of the papillae and a build up of bacteria, food debris, and dead cells. It’s described as a grayish-white coating

Papillae are tiny protrusions on the surface of your tongue. The particle buildup causes them to swell, creating a grayish white discoloration.

Lesions of the tongue can also caused by several diseases, including:

  • Lichen planus
  • Leukoplakia
  • Geographic tongue
  • Mouth ulcer
  • Oral candidiasis
  • Syphilis
  • Oral cancer

You should seek a dentist’s help if your white tongue is accompanied by symptoms like:

  • Soreness
  • Burning
  • Fever
  • Rash
  • Ear pain
  • Swelling of the jaw
  • Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue
  • Loss of taste

Dentists recommend brushing your teeth and tongue twice a day to prevent a white tongue. Drink plenty of water and avoid smoking and drinking alcohol.

Professional treatments for a white tongue can vary based on your health.

11 Sources Cited
Last updated on October 3, 2022
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. Candida infections of the mouth, throat, and esophagus.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25 Feb. 2021
  2. Lichen Planus: Diagnosis and Treatment.” American Academy of Dermatology Association
  3. Lichen Planus: Overview.” American Academy of Dermatology Association
  4. Mohammed, F. and Fairozekhan, AT. “Oral Leukoplakia.” NIH, 27 July 2021
  5. Mouth ulcers.” NHS Inform, NHS, 16 Nov. 2020
  6. Oral Cancer.” National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, NIH, July 2018
  7. Radfar et al. “Geographic Tongue.” The American Academy of Oral Medicine, 13 May 2015
  8. Sore or white tongue.” NHS, Crown, 2 June 2020
  9. Syphilis – CDC Fact Sheet.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 Feb. 2022
  10. White tongue.” Medicover Hospitals, Medicover Hospitals, 20 Feb. 2021
  11. Wooldridge, A. “Why Your Tongue Is White: Causes and Treatment Options.” K Health, 12 May 2022
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