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What Does It Mean If Your Tongue Is Coated White?

white tongue

Do you pay attention to the color of your tongue? It may seem like a silly question, but it’s never a bad idea to be in the know about what is going on with your body. There are countless ways that our bodies let us know when there is something wrong or there is an imbalance, even when it comes to something as seemingly small as dental hygiene.

Have you ever taken a look in the mirror and noticed that your tongue is coated in a white residue? You certainly wouldn’t be alone if you noticed something of the sort, but it’s a fairly easy condition to reverse and have your tongue appear pink and residue-free again.

What is it?

There’s no official name for having a “white tongue,” (though there are various conditions associated with white patches)  but in general, the temporary condition is the overgrowth and swelling of papillae (finger-like projections) on the surface of our tongue. The white appearance is caused by a buildup of debris, bacteria. These can become stuck between our taste buds, which also naturally occur in our esophagus, cheek mucosa, and epiglottis. Symptoms and the appearance of a white tongue can range from simply a dry, sticky coating on the surface of the tongue to tiny lesions, discolored taste buds, or pockets of pus. Generally, this will be a painless condition, though some soreness can occur. 

Occasionally, round white patches can also appear on our tongues, which generally are a sign of dehydration as well as a diet that is high in sugar. Since they tend not to cause any discomfort, they tend to go unnoticed by most.

However, if the white film on your tongue, even if it’s just a patch, doesn’t alleviate over time, this could point to more serious issues like a compromised immune system. This root cause would be more commonly associated with pain and soreness accompanied by the white appearance of the tongue. As we all have bacteria present in our system, those with a healthy immune system have the ability to fight it off. When the immune system is not functioning properly or is weakened, fighting off that bacteria can become increasingly more difficult.

Can anything else cause “white tongue” to form?

Beyond our general existence and the presence of bacteria in our bodies, there are a few other things that could potentially cause this buildup in our mouths. Dentures that do not fit properly are a culprit of the formation of this white film. In addition, inhalers and excessive gum chewing can also both lead to these symptoms as well. 

Inflammation on the surface of our tongues can be caused by a myriad of additional issues, including poor oral hygiene, dry mouth, smoking or oral tobacco use, and excessive drinking (alcohol). Other issues range from mouth breathing, fever, a low roughage diet (eating mostly soft foods), or mechanical irritation from dental appliances and/or sharp tooth edges. 

There are also several conditions that are linked to white tongue: 

Oral Lichen planus:

White patches that occur on the tongue and/or inside the cheek, accompanied by sore gums


White, raised patches on the tongue, inside of the cheeks, or on the gums. These patches do not come off when you rub them.

Geographic tongue:

Red blotches on the tongue that tend to have a white border

Mouth ulcer:

Swollen sores have the appearance of blisters, which can appear on the tongue, inside of the cheeks, or on the lips.

Oral thrush:

Itchy, red mouth accompanied by white patches on the tongue

Treatment and prevention

Simple oral hygiene is one way to alleviate the basic symptoms of white tongue with an at-home solution. When you brush your teeth, try to use a soft toothbrush paired with a mild toothpaste that doesn’t include the ingredient sodium lauryl sulfate. You will also want to brush your tongue or use a tongue scraper to help remove the white coating from the surface of your tongue. 

You’ll also want to drink more water a day to remain hydrated. If you’re having a cold drink, opt for a straw instead. Avoid irritating substances like mouthwashes that contain alcohol, cigarettes, as well as spicy, salty, acidic, or extremely hot food and drinks.

For the more intense cases that may be linked to a specific condition, you’ll want to consult your health practitioner to see if you need any specific medical treatment.

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