Why Your Tongue Is White: Causes and Treatment Options

By Alicia Wooldridge, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
May 12, 2022

Our bodies carry several different types of bacteria, and many of these live inside our mouths.

These work together to help us digest foods and restore a healthy balance of sugars in our mouths.

Sometimes you may notice that your tongue, teeth, and inside of your cheeks are discolored or have a thin film on them.

Most of the time they are not related to anything serious and can usually be controlled by maintaining good oral hygiene. 

However, if you notice that your tongue is white for long periods of time or that it is causing you to have bad breath, it could be a sign of oral thrush or another similar, yet controllable, disease.

In this article, we’ll explore what causes a white tongue and what you can do to prevent it.

We’ll also look at when you would need to seek professional help for white tongue and what treatment options are available for it.

What Is White Tongue?

If your tongue has a gray, white, or off-white coating on it, then it will be called ‘white tongue.’

The white-colored layer can cover the entire tongue, and may also appear in white patches sporadically or only at the back of the tongue.

This thick white film is usually harmless and goes away in time, but if you notice a foul odor, bad taste in the mouth, extra-thick white layer, or accompanying redness and soreness, it could be something a little more serious.

When you’re experiencing this, you should also keep an eye on the papillae, which are the tiny bumps on the surface of your tongue that help grip food and send taste signals to your brain when you eat and drink anything.

When these bumps get swollen or clogged with a whitish overgrowth it leads to white tongue.  

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Possible Causes

There are several different contributing factors that can lead to your papillae getting clogged, which in turn is what causes the tongue to turn white.

Some possible causes of white tongue include:

  • Poor oral hygiene: Food, dead cells, bacteria, and other debris don’t get cleaned thoroughly or often enough.
  • Dehydration: It is important to consume plenty of water and other healthy liquids to stimulate good bacteria in your mouth. A dehydrated tongue can appear cracked, dry, and white. Keeping your mouth open for long periods of time, like in your sleep, can lead to mouth dehydration as well. 
  • Tobacco and alcohol: Excessive consumption of alcohol and chewing or other oral use of tobacco may contribute to white tongue as the chemicals interfere with the bacteria in your mouth, and if it has not been cleaned sufficiently. These substances can irritate the sensitive nerves inside your mouth and on your tongue. 
  • Certain foods and diet: Some mashed and soft foods remain on your tongue for long periods of time and can lead to white tongue. Food that is of course texture offers the tongue more roughage and ‘cleaning action.’
  • Medications: Some over-the-counter and prescription drugs may interfere with the bacteria in your mouth, leaving you with a white tongue. You may also suffer from white tongue if you have other illnesses like a cold or fever, but this usually subsides when you start feeling better.
  • COVID-19: Some studies show that patients show signs of ‘COVID tongue,’ which is the discoloration of the tongue due to the virus. However, there is still research being done about this and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is updating its resources regarding COVID-19 and its relation to fungal infections. 

Conditions Linked to a White Tongue

In some cases, white tongue could be the cause of a different underlying issue or could lead to other conditions and ailments.

Some of these are detailed below, however, it is important to remember that just because you have white tongue does not mean that you will go through these other conditions as well. 

Leukoplakia

Leukoplakia is a common condition that shows up as raised white patches on the tongue.

This condition is possibly malignant and is most often associated with excessive tobacco use or alcohol consumption; however, almost anyone could potentially get it.

Most often, leukoplakia is harmless and can be treated like any fungal infection.

In very rare cases it could lead to mouth or oral cancer. 

If you are concerned, then consult your healthcare practitioner and they will prescribe a treatment or advise you to make a few lifestyle changes for leukoplakia to subside.

Oral Thrush

Another common reason for your tongue to turn white could be a yeast infection in your mouth called oral thrush.

Also called oropharyngeal candidiasis, this infection is caused by the fungus candida and is commonly seen after taking antibiotics.

It also infects those with a compromised immune system, including young children and infants, those living with ailments such as HIV/AIDS, diabetes, and leukemia, and those with vitamin deficiencies. 

Apart from a white tongue, healthcare providers will look for obvious symptoms of oral thrush, including redness and soreness, loss of taste, and pain or discomfort while eating and swallowing. 

Oral Lichen Planus

According to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), lichen planus can affect all parts of the body.

This disorder of the immune system is not contagious and will appear as sores alongside white tongue as well as all over the inside of your mouth, your gums, and inside your lips.

The open sores can be painful, and in very rare cases can lead to some forms of cancer.

But this is not only rare, it is also easily treatable, and the discomfort it causes is too obvious for anyone to ignore.

Syphilis

One of the symptoms of this sexually transmitted disease is white tongue, or white patches on the tongue, which usually appears only when the disease is left untreated.

Look for more obvious and early symptoms of syphilis like rash, fever, swollen lymph nodes fatigue, weight loss, hair loss, muscle aches, and sore throat

Treatment Options 

Most cases of white tongue do not require any treatment and will subside in time and with good hygiene practice.

Symptoms will usually clear in a few days, and if it takes more than that, you can ask your healthcare provider or our experts at K Health for advice. 

At-Home Treatment Options

In a majority of cases, white tongue can be taken care of at home.

Some options include:

  • Maintaining good oral hygiene. Brush your teeth twice daily, once in the morning as soon as you wake up and once at night before you sleep. You can also brush after every meal, and gently scrub your tongue each time. Floss your teeth and gently brush the inside of your cheeks, as well. 
  • Consuming a healthy diet. Drink plenty of liquids to keep your body and mouth hydrated. Eat a diet that is nutritious and rich in vitamins and fiber. You might also want to avoid excessively spicy, salty, and acidic foods till your tongue recovers.
  • Avoid smoking and alcohol. Keep the intake of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco to a minimum and your tongue should soon return to its original color.
  • Use mild fluoride. Toothpaste and mouthwash with mild fluoride and antibacterial properties can be used in your regular oral hygiene routine to eliminate white tongue.

If the white patches on your tongue do not subside after a week of at-home treatments, then consult a medical professional and they will suggest alternative treatment options or prescribed medication that could help.

Prevention

It may not be very easy to prevent white tongue, as many people eat and drink on the go, and without having time to rinse their mouths after a meal.

However, there are a few precautions you can take to prevent getting a white tongue on a regular basis.

Use a soft-bristled brush when you brush your teeth and the insides of your mouth twice a day.

This will ensure that nothing hard causes any lesions and abrasions inside your mouth and on your tongue.

It is also important that you visit a healthcare professional and dentist for regular checkups and oral cleanings.

Maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle that is moderate in alcohol and tobacco, and drink plenty of water throughout the day.

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When to See a Medical Provider

If a white tongue is your only symptom and you are not suffering from any other pains, aches, or signs of other conditions then you might not need to see your medical provider immediately.

If your white tongue does not go away in two weeks, especially after you have been trying to treat it at home using the options mentioned above, you might want to consider reaching out to a medical professional for further advice and diagnosis.

Make an appointment with your medical professional if you notice pains and aches in the mouth for several days, if your tongue is breaking out into sores and lesions and if you have difficulty swallowing, talking, chewing, breathing, and talking.

Call 911 immediately or visit the emergency department as soon as possible if you have severe difficulty in breathing.

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

If you have any more questions about any white patches on your tongue, you can reach out to our expert clinicians 24/7 from wherever you are.

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I get rid of the white coating on my tongue?
Most people can easily remove the white layer on their tongues by gently scrubbing it with their toothbrushes after brushing their teeth. You may also use a tongue scraper or spoon to scrape your tongue, but remember to do so gently and without using force.
What does white tongue indicate?
A white tongue usually means that food residue, bacteria, or other debris is stuck between the small bumps of your tongue. This can easily be cleaned by maintaining good hygiene and brushing your teeth and tongue regularly.
Does your tongue go white with COVID-19?
As with other illnesses like the common cold and flu, some people may experience loss of taste, soreness in the throat, and discoloration of the tongue when they catch COVID-19 as well. Visit your healthcare professional or nearest medical provider if your symptoms worsen, if you feel weak, or experience loss of breath.
Does white tongue mean you're sick?
In most cases, a white tongue simply means that you need to pay attention to your oral hygiene and it should clear away by brushing, cleaning, and consuming plenty of healthy foods and liquids. If white tongue persists for several days and after your attempts to clean it, then book an appointment with your healthcare provider or consult a medical expert for advice.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Alicia Wooldridge, MD

Dr. Alicia Wooldridge is a board certified Family Medicine physician with over a decade of experience.

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