- Understand what causes a white tongue
- Explore conditions often associated with white tongue
- Learn how to treat white tongue and when to call your doctor or dentist
- Learn how to prevent a white tongue
What is a white tongue?
A white tongue occurs when your tongue becomes coated in a thick white film. This film may cover your entire tongue or appear in patches all over the surface. In many cases, you may also experience an odd taste in your mouth, bad breath, and redness and swelling of the tongue. White tongue can commonly occur when bacteria, fungi, dead cells, and food debris become trapped in the papillae, or small bumps, on the surface of your tongue, creating the white film that is present.
Causes of white tongue
In many cases, a white tongue can be related to poor oral health and oral hygiene that contributes to the buildup within the papillae and create the white film you see on your tongue. Common conditions that can contribute to white tongue include:
- Poor oral hygiene routine
- A dry mouth
- Mouth breathing
- Smoking or using other tobacco products
- Alcohol use
- Irritation from dental work, such as fillings, crowns, or dentures
- Fever or infection
- Eating a lot of soft foods
- Antibiotic use
- Undergoing cancer treatments
Conditions linked to white tongue
In addition to the buildup of bacteria, food particles, dead cells, and fungi, a white tongue can also be associated with a number of different health conditions, including oral cancer in some rare cases.
Leukoplakia is a condition caused by the overgrowth of cells lining the inside of your mouth. These cells combine with keratin and create white, raised patches on the surface of your tongue. This condition is often caused by smoking or alcohol use and is not considered a serious condition. However, in some cases, these patches can lead to mouth cancer.
2. Oral thrush
Oral thrush is a yeast infection occurring in the mouth. While Candida is normally found in the mouth at low levels, when it grows out of control, it creates a white tongue. The overgrowth of Candida is uncommon in adults and teens and can often indicate a lowered immune system or other underlying conditions. In addition to a white tongue, oral thrush can cause white, cottage cheese-like lesions to appear on your inner cheeks, gums, tonsils, and the roof of your mouth.
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease that can cause white patches, known as syphilitic leukoplakia, to form on the surface of your tongue, resulting in a white appearance.
4. Oral lichen planus
Oral lichen planus is a chronic inflammatory condition that affects the mucous membranes in the mouth. This condition causes lacy patches of white along the surface of the tongue. In addition, it can cause inflammation of the tongue and the gums, resulting in open sores, discomfort, and burning pain.
5. Geographic tongue
Geographic tongue is an inflammatory condition that affects the surface of your tongue. This condition causes patches on the tongue that do not have papillae, leaving the tongue with smooth, red islands on the surface. When you experience a white tongue, these patches will remain red.
In most cases, the white tongue does not require treatment and will go away on its own in time. There are things you can do at home to help treat white tongue, but if you do not see any improvement after a week or so, you should talk with your healthcare professional or dentist.
There are a variety of different things you can do to help treat and reduce the white film on your tongue and improve your oral health. This can include:
- Brushing your teeth with a soft toothbrush and a mild fluoride toothpaste
- Use a fluoride mouthwash that is alcohol-free
- Brushing your tongue or using a tongue scraper to help remove the white coating
- Increasing your water intake to avoid dehydration
- Avoiding spicy, salty, and acidic foods
When should you see a doctor?
If the white coating on your tongue does not resolve in a couple of weeks or you experience pain, a burning sensation, develop open sores, have a fever, experience unexplained weight loss, or develop a rash on your skin, you should see your doctor as soon as possible. In addition, some causes of white tongue, such as oral thrush and syphilis, will not resolve on their own. Oral thrush requires an antifungal medication while syphilis requires penicillin.
While it is not always possible to prevent white tongue, a good oral hygiene routine can lower your risk of developing this condition. Brushing your teeth with fluoride toothpaste and a soft toothbrush twice a day, flossing at least once a day, and using an alcohol-free fluoride mouthwash can help reduce your risk. In addition, avoid smoking and reduce your alcohol consumption.
How to clean a white tongue
When you notice a white tongue, you can try to remove some of the white coatings by brushing the surface of your tongue with a soft toothbrush or scraping the surface with a tongue scraper. Rinsing your mouth with water or an alcohol-free mouthwash can also help remove the debris causing the white coating.
A white tongue is usually harmless
While it may not be the look you are going for, a white tongue is usually not a cause for concern. By improving your oral hygiene routine, you can usually expect a white tongue to resolve quickly. Should it remain or worsen, then you are advised to speak with your doctor as soon as possible to rule out any potential underlying conditions that require treatment.
We are here to help when your tongue turns white
At New Leaf Rohnert Park, we understand how unsettling a white tongue may be at first and we are here to answer all of your questions and concerns. If your white tongue doesn’t resolve, call us to schedule an appointment for an evaluation and potential treatment if necessary.