White tongue is the result of an overgrowth and swelling of the fingerlike projections (papillae) on the surface of your tongue. The appearance of a white coating is caused by debris, bacteria and dead cells getting lodged between the enlarged and sometimes inflamed papillae.
Causes of papillae hypertrophy or inflammation include, for example:
- Poor oral hygiene
- Dry mouth
- Smoking or other oral tobacco use
- Alcohol use
- Mouth breathing
- Low roughage diet — eating mostly soft or mashed foods
- Mechanical irritation from sharp tooth edges or dental appliances
Examples of conditions associated with white patches or other discolorations of your tongue include:
- Use of certain medications, such as prolonged use of antibiotics that may bring on an oral yeast infection
- Oral thrush
- Geographic tongue
- Oral lichen planus
- Mouth cancer
- Tongue cancer
Feb. 12, 2015
Causes shown here are commonly associated with this symptom. Work with your doctor or other health care professional for an accurate diagnosis.
- Coated or white tongue. NHS Choices. http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coated-tongue/Pages/Introduction.aspx. Accessed Dec. 2, 2014.
- Felix DH, et al. Oral medicine: 6. White lesions. Dental Update. 2013;40:150.
- Reamy BV, et al. Common tongue conditions in primary care. American Family Physician. 2010;81:627.
- Bhattacharyya I, et al. White lesions. Otolaryngologic Clinics of North America. 2011;44:109.
- Detecting oral cancer: A guide for health care professionals. National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. http://www.nidcr.nih.gov/oralhealth/topics/oralcancer/detectingoralcancer.htm#WarningSigns. Accessed Dec. 2, 2014.
- Salinas TJ (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Dec. 6, 2014.
- Bruce AJ (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Jan. 6, 2015.