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 (excessive)
- 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
- Immunosuppression caused by such diseases as HIV/AIDS
Causes shown here are commonly associated with this symptom. Work with your doctor or other health care professional for an accurate diagnosis.
Feb. 03, 2018
From Mayo Clinic to your inbox
Sign up for free, and stay up to date on research advancements, health tips and current health topics, like COVID-19, plus expertise on managing health.
ErrorEmail field is required
ErrorInclude a valid email address
To provide you with the most relevant and helpful information, and understand which
information is beneficial, we may combine your email and website usage information with
other information we have about you. If you are a Mayo Clinic patient, this could
include protected health information. If we combine this information with your protected
health information, we will treat all of that information as protected health
information and will only use or disclose that information as set forth in our notice of
privacy practices. You may opt-out of email communications at any time by clicking on
the unsubscribe link in the e-mail.
Thank you for subscribing
Our Housecall e-newsletter will keep you up-to-date on the latest health information.
Sorry something went wrong with your subscription
Please, try again in a couple of minutes
- 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.