Most people have done a double taken when looking in the mirror only to discover — huh?! — their tongue is white! Must be something you ate, right? The good news is that a white tongue is almost always harmless and will resolve on its own, but the reasons why your tongue changed hues can be a bit complicated. So, how does this happen?
Normally, your tongue is a bright pinkish-red color and is covered by tons of tiny little finger-like bumps, called papillae. Papillae can become infected due to health or dietary issues as well as poor oral hygiene, and when they become inflamed they swell up and trap bacteria and dead cells between them. This debris can coat the tongue, giving it a whitish appearance.
To get more specific, there are a few common conditions that cause a white tongue: The first is oral lichen planus, which is a long-term immune disorder that can cause white patches in the mouth, and sometimes painful oral sores. Mild symptoms don’t usually need to be treated, but mouthwashes and prescription sprays and rinses can help in more severe occurrences.
Oral thrush, also known as candidiasis, is a yeast infection in the mouth. You’ll notice that the white patches can be scraped off, and your tongue may burn at times. This condition is seen most often in young children and the elderly, as well as those who have diabetes, vitamin deficiencies, weakened immune system. Oral thrush can also develop after antibiotics are taken because they kill the “good” bacteria in the mouth. Like oral lichen plants, this condition is often not at all serious and usually resolves on its own.
There are a few rare but serious conditions that can also cause a white tongue. The most common is leukoplakia, a condition that causes the cells in the mouth to grow uncontrollably and present visually as white patches. Sometimes leukoplakia is harmless, but it can also be a precursor to oral cancer or can be a sign of HIV/AIDS. Syphilis can also cause the papillae to become inflamed and turn the tongue white as well.
If you notice your tongue is white, don’t panic! Remember, it is most likely harmless and will resolve itself. To help, you can try cleaning your tongue with a tongue scraper, brush twice daily, and drink lots of water. If you don’t notice an improvement over the course of a week or two, it may be a good idea to have your dentist check it out.
Got any additional questions about your tongue? Drop us a line or let us know in the comments!