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What Causes a Yellow Tongue?

Overview

A yellow tongue is often harmless, and it’ll go away on its own in time. Only a few conditions that cause yellow tongue, such as jaundice, are more serious and need treatment.

Learn why your tongue might turn yellow and how to treat the different causes of this symptom.

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Causes

Causes of yellow tongue

A common cause of yellow tongue is a buildup of skin cells and bacteria on your tongue. This buildup is often due to poor dental hygiene.

Jaundice is one of the few more serious causes of yellow tongue.

Possible cause Additional symptoms and information
black hairy tongue This harmless condition happens when the little bumps called papillae that line the tip and sides of your tongue grow larger. Bacteria, dirt, food, and other substances can collect on these bumps and turn them different colors. Even though “black” is in the name of this disorder, your tongue can turn yellow or other colors before it turns black.
poor oral hygiene When you don’t brush your teeth often and thoroughly, skin cells and bacteria can build up on the papillae of your tongue. Bacteria release pigments that can turn your tongue yellow. Food, tobacco, and other substances can also get trapped on your tongue and turn it yellow.
dry mouth or mouth breathing Dry mouth is a lack of enough saliva in your mouth. Saliva washes bacteria out of your mouth, which helps prevent tooth decay. Medicine side effects, diseases like Sjogren’s syndrome and diabetes, as well as radiation and chemotherapy can all cause your mouth to dry out. Breathing in and out through your mouth while you sleep also contributes to dry mouth.
geographic tongue This condition happens when you’re missing patches of papillae on your tongue. Doctors don’t know why this happens, but it sometimes runs in families. The condition gets its name because the missing patches make the surface of your tongue look like a map. The patches are often red, but they can turn yellow too. Sometimes they’ll hurt.
jaundice Jaundice is a condition in which the skin and whites of your eyes turn yellow. It happens when your liver is damaged and can’t properly process the waste product bilirubin. Bilirubin is a yellow pigment that’s produced when red blood cells break down. When bilirubin builds up in the blood, your skin, whites of your eyes, and tongue can turn yellow.
medicines that contain bismuth Pepto-Bismol and other bismuth-containing medicines can turn your tongue colors that range from yellow to black.
mouthwashes that contain oxidizing agents Using a mouthwash that contains peroxide, witch hazel, or menthol can turn your tongue colors.
tobacco smoke Chemicals in tobacco smoke can make your tongue turn a yellow color.
 
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Call a doctor

When to call your doctor

You don’t need to get medical help if a yellow tongue is your only symptom. But you should call your doctor if:

  • you have other symptoms of jaundice, an infection, or liver damage, such as:
    • abdominal pain
    • blood in your stools
    • vomiting
    • fever
    • easy bruising and bleeding
  • the yellow color doesn’t go away after two weeks
  • your skin or the whites of your eyes are also yellow
  • your tongue hurts
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Complications

Are there complications?

Yellow tongue usually doesn’t cause any complications. However, the conditions that cause jaundice can lead to problems including:

  • liver scarring
  • liver failure
  • swelling in your legs and belly
  • enlargement of your spleen
  • bleeding in your gastrointestinal tract
  • liver cancer
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Treatment

Treatment

To treat a yellow tongue, brush with a mixture of one part hydrogen peroxide and five parts water once a day. Then rinse your mouth out several times with water.

Treating any underlying condition that is the cause of your yellow tongue should relieve this symptom.

To treat black hairy tongue

  • Brush your teeth at least twice a day, including after each meal.
  • Rinse your mouth out with water a few times a day.
  • Don’t smoke.

To improve your oral hygiene

  • Brush your teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste and a soft-bristled brush.
  • Floss at least once a day.
  • Consider using a fluoride mouthwash daily.
  • See your dentist every six months for a checkup and cleaning.
  • Limit sweets, especially sticky foods like toffee and gummies.

To treat dry mouth

  • Your doctor can prescribe medicine or recommend that you use a special mouth rinse to increase the amount of saliva in your mouth.
  • If a medicine caused your dry mouth, ask your doctor if you can change the dose or switch to another drug.
  • Drink water or other sugar-free drinks throughout the day.
  • Avoid caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol, which can dry out your mouth even more.
  • Chew sugarless gum to stimulate saliva production.
  • If you breathe through your mouth at night, turn on a humidifier to add moisture to the air in your bedroom.

To treat geographic tongue

  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers or use a mouth rinse with an anesthetic to relieve any pain.
  • Your doctor might also prescribe corticosteroid ointments or rinses to treat discomfort from the condition.

To treat jaundice

  • If an infection such as hepatitis caused jaundice, your doctor may give you medicine to treat it.
  • For jaundice caused by a blood disorder like sickle cell anemia, blood transfusions or chelation medications that bind iron might be part of your treatment.
  • Avoid or reduce the amount of alcohol you drink to protect your liver from further damage.
  • For severe liver disease, a liver transplant may be an option.

To quit smoking

  • Ask your doctor for advice on how to quit.
  • You can try a nicotine replacement product, such as a patch, lozenge, gum, or nasal spray. These products help reduce your urge to smoke.
  • Your doctor can prescribe medicines such as varenicline (Chantix) or bupropion (Zyban) to relieve the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal.
  • Telephone-based help, support groups, and one-on-one counseling can help you cope with any issues that arise from quitting.
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Prevention

How to prevent yellow tongue

To reduce the number of bacteria and amount of cell buildup in your mouth that can cause yellow tongue, try these tips:

  • Quit smoking.
  • Brush your teeth twice a day and floss at least once daily.
  • Use a tongue scraper to gently remove dead cells, food, and other debris from your tongue.
  • Increase the amount of fiber in your diet, which will reduce the number of bacteria in your mouth.
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