Why Does Your Tongue Turn White?

Ever wonder why your tongue turns white? As it turns out quite a few things, but the most common causes are pretty easy to keep at bay or clear up.
Christopher McFadden

Why does your tongue turn white? An interesting question but not necessarily a simple or short one to answer. As it turns out it could be one of many discrete disorders or illnesses the vast majority of which are generally benign. 

Before we continue, this article is not to be used for medical advice in any way, it is purely for information. If you are worried you should consult a medical professional. 

Of course, it is never nice to notice a change in your body as obvious a color change. Especially to something as vital as your tongue. It can be shocking to note the whiteness of your tongue when you wake up in the morning to brush your teeth.

Although it does look a bit nasty it is usually not something to worry about and will "heal" of its own accord. There are some simple tips and methods you can use to clear it up faster if desired. These also help you work out if its something a bit more serious. We'll cover these later in the article, first what exactly is it and why does your tongue turn white?

Before we go on, the following article will contain some medical disorders relating to the human tongue. Some of them are pretty gross so if you are easily nauseated it's best you don't read on. 

Ok, still here? Great, we knew we liked you...

What is white tongue?

Isn't it that book about a wolf by Jack London? Close but no cigar, as they say. 

Whitening of the top layer of your tongue can look pretty unsightly but it might not necessarily be anything to worry about. The whiteness itself is the result of an overgrowth and swelling of the fingerlike papillae on the surface of your tongue.

Because of the swelling of the papillae, food particulate, bacteria, and other associated dead cells can get lodged between the engorged papillae. Nice eh?

White tongue, on the whole, is usually completely harmless and temporary so don't worry. But it could also be an indication of something a lot more serious. These usually range from infections to cancers.

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Why Does Your Tongue Turn White?
Source: Grook da oger/Wikimedia Commons

What can cause white tongue?

The main thing that makes your tongue turn white is papillae hypertrophy (inflammation) and it can be caused by many different things. It could be due to poor general hygiene or diet or other associated habits, mechanical or chemical damage and of course diseases.

According to Mayo Clinic, white tongue can be the result of any of the following. Some or all of these can "breed" the conditions for the most common cause of white tongue, oral thrush:-

-Not brushing your teeth or tongue regularly

-Dry mouth

-Congenital heart disease in adults

-Smoking or other oral tobacco use

-Excessive alcohol consumption

-Breathing through your mouth

-Low roughage diet — eating mostly soft or mashed foods

-Mechanical irritation from sharp tooth edges or dental appliances


Why Does Your Tongue Turn White?
Candida albicans. Source: GrahamColm/Wikimedia Commons

What about infections?

Diseases that can commonly make your tongue turn white or any other change in color of your tongue include:-

-Oral thrush or candidiasis - the most common cause

-Geographic tongue

-Leukoplakia. This is a condition where white patches on your tongue are caused by overproduction of cells and proteins. It's not serious but a doctor will want to check that it's not cancer.

-Oral lichen planus. This is an immune condition which can be associated with pain or burning.

-Mouth cancers

-Tongue cancers

-Taking oral medications especially antibiotics leading to oral yeast build up

-Syphilis. We guess you've at least heard of this one. It can also cause your tongue to turn white. If you suspect you've been infected you should go and get checked out straight away.


Mmmm lovely. Of the course, the chances that it is something more benign such as mouth breathing or physical damage are far more likely than the above. If you are really worried you can, of course, consult your doctor just to check.

Why Does Your Tongue Turn White?
SABHI agar plate culture of the fungus Candida albicans. Source: CDC/Dr. William Kaplan/Wikimedia Commons

Could it be Geographic tongue and not white tongue?

There is a simple check to see if what's going on is white tongue or geographic tongue. Neither of these is usually serious. Geographic tongue is where smooth lesions that basically look like areas of your tongue that have had the papillae worn away.

As this is damage to your tongue surface. Strong foods like curries or acidic or salty foods will likely cause you some discomfort. It gets it name from the fact that your tongue surface sort of resembles a map.

It affects between 1 and 3 % of the population and can appear at any age. Geographic tongue does tend to affect middle-aged or older adults though. It is also more common in women than men, apparently.

Why Does Your Tongue Turn White?
Geographic tongue. Source: Dimitrios Malamos/Wikimedia Commons

Oh no, am I going to die?

Chances are it's completely benign and temporary so don't worry. White tongue is generally harmless and will clear up on its own. You can accelerate recovery by gently brushing your tongue with a toothbrush or using a tongue scraper to clear the nasty detritus. 

You should also make a habit of drinking plenty of water.

General guidance tells white tongue sufferers to only consult a doctor if you become concerned with the changes to your tongue. You should also go if your tongue begins to hurt or the white tongue lasts for more than a few weeks. 

Did you mention tips to clear it up?

Indeed we did and thanks for the reminder. Generally speaking, you should try to avoid dehydration. You should do this as a matter of course anyway. Staving off dehydration will keep a lot of ailments at bay in any case. 

If you are a smoker you should try to cut down or quit. Again, like drinking water, this will improve your general wellbeing anyway, for obvious reasons. That also goes for alcohol, you should always strive to drink responsibly.

Maintaining good oral hygiene will also go a long way to staving-off things that make your tongue turn white. But is also good for your general health too.

White tongue can be cleared up by brushing your tongue. This will mechanically remove the dead cells and other detritus and help it clear up. You can also achieve a similar result using a tongue scraper. You should also wash your mouth out with water regularly. This will help rinse the detritus away. 

You can, of course, take a stronger approach and use antiseptic mouthwash or salt solution. Yes, they taste horrible but they will kill some of the nasties in your mouth. 

So there you go. Why does your tongue turn white? Because your tongue papillae inflame through infection or damage and trap stuff between them. Simple really and pretty gross too, nice!

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