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A yellow tongue is often harmless, and it usually goes 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.

The appearance of a yellow tongue depends on the underlying cause. You may notice yellowish-white patches on your tongue and other parts of your mouth from a yeast overgrowth.

Poor oral hygiene and some other conditions can lead to a yellow buildup on the surface of your tongue from dead skin cells, bacteria, and other particles in your mouth. It can also lead to bad breath.

Certain foods, medications, and drugs may temporarily stain parts of your mouth like your tongue, gums, or palate.

Although not among the most common causes of a yellow tongue, jaundice may cause your tongue, palate, eyes, and skin to turn yellow.

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There may be many different causes of yellow tongue.
pastorscott/Getty Images

Potential causes of a yellow tongue include:

Poor oral hygiene

When you don’t brush your teeth often and thoroughly, skin cells and bacteria can build up on your tongue’s papillae. Papillae are the little bumps that line the tip and side of your tongue.

Bacteria release pigments that can turn your tongue yellow. Food, tobacco, and other substances can also get trapped on your papillae and turn your tongue yellow.

Black hairy tongue

Black hairy tongue is a harmless condition caused by the overgrowth of dead skin cells on your tongue. This overgrowth cause your papillae to 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.

Factors that may contribute to the development of hairy tongue include:

  • smoking
  • excessive coffee consumption
  • drinking alcohol
  • dry mouth
  • some antibiotics, such as tetracyclines
  • eating a soft diet

Other symptoms can include:

Dry mouth or mouth breathing

Dry mouth is a lack of adequate saliva in your mouth. Normally, saliva washes bacteria out of your mouth, which helps prevent tooth decay. If your mouth is abnormally dry, bacteria buildup can lead to yellow patches on your tongue.

Factors that can contribute to a dry mouth include:

Geographic tongue

Geographic tongue 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.

Medicines that contain bismuth

Pepto-Bismol and other bismuth subsalicylate-containing medicines can turn your tongue colors that range from yellow to black. It may also cause your stools to darken.

Antibiotics

Taking antibiotics can make you more prone to developing oral thrush, a yeast infection in your mouth. Oral thrush is caused by an overgrowth of the yeast Candida albicans.

This overgrowth can cause white or yellowish patches on your tongue, inner cheeks, gums, or lips.

Black hairy tongue may also be a rare side effect of antibiotics.

Other medications and drugs

Some other medications and drugs may cause a temporary yellow or brown discoloration of your tongue and mouth. When the tongue is affected, usually, the discoloration appears on the upper surface of your tongue.

Medications that are known to sometimes cause discoloration in your mouth include:

Cocaine use is also known to cause discoloration.

Some mouthwashes

Using a mouthwash that contains peroxide, witch hazel, or menthol can turn your tongue colors. Prescription mouthwashes that contain chlorhexidine are also known to stain the surface of your teeth and tongue.

Tobacco smoke and chewing tobacco

Chemicals in tobacco smoke and chewing tobacco can make your tongue turn a yellow color. Smoking is also a risk factor for developing black hairy tongue.

In a 2018 case study, researchers describe a 36-year-old woman who developed yellow hairy tongue after smoking 25 cigarettes a day for 17 years. She made a full recovery after improving her oral hygiene habits and quitting smoking.

Diet

Some foods and drinks may cause temporary yellow or brown staining of your tongue. These include tea and coffee or foods with yellow dyes added like candies, chips, or crackers. Some vitamins and supplements also contain yellow dye.

Jaundice

Jaundice is a condition that causes your skin and the whites of your eyes to 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.

Jaundice can also cause your mouth to turn yellow. Bilirubin tends to accumulate along the soft palate and floor of your mouth near your frenulum, the band of tissue that connects your tongue to the bottom of your mouth.

Jaundice requires prompt medical attention because it can indicate a serious disease such as:

Autoimmune conditions

The autoimmune condition called psoriasis causes flaky and scaly skin. It can also cause red patches with yellow edges on your tongue. However, oral psoriasis of the tongue is extremely rare.

According to the authors of a 2019 study, only 64 cases were reported in the scientific literature from 1903 to 2009.

Diabetes

In a 2018 study published in the Journal of Epidemiology, researchers found that a yellow tongue coating was associated with diabetes and tended to be associated with prediabetes in nonsmoking Japanese men and women.

Gastric conditions

Gastritis is inflammation of the lining of your stomach. Chronic gastritis is characterized by long-term inflammation of this lining. Some people with gastritis have a yellow coating on their tongue.

In one study, researchers found that in 440 chronic gastritis patients infected with the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, 81.16 percent had yellow tongue covering.

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

  • you have other symptoms of jaundice, an infection, or liver damage, such as:
  • the yellow color doesn’t go away after 2 weeks
  • your skin or the whites of your eyes are also yellow
  • your tongue hurts

A yellow tongue usually doesn’t cause 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

A healthcare professional can help you figure out why your tongue has turned yellow.

To make a diagnosis, they’ll examine your tongue and ask about your medical history. They may be able to diagnose the cause based on your signs and symptoms. If the underlying cause isn’t apparent, they may need to order other tests such as blood tests and imaging.

To treat a yellow tongue caused by staining, 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.

If your yellow tongue is caused by an underlying condition, proper medical treatment is needed to relieve your symptoms.

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 or blood product transfusions, 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 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. (See more below).

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 6 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 gels or rinses to treat discomfort from the condition.

To quit smoking

  • Ask your doctor for advice on how to quit. (See more below).
  • 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.

To treat a yellow tongue caused by medications or mouthwashes

  • For prescription medications, ask your doctor if it’s safe to change the medication or stop taking it.
  • For nonprescription medications and mouthwashes, stop taking the product or try switching to a different product.

To eliminate dietary factors

  • Usually, your tongue will return to its normal color once you rinse out your mouth.
  • Avoiding foods that cause temporary staining like tea and coffee may help you avoid discoloration.

To treat other health conditions

  • Visit a healthcare professional for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.
  • For diabetes, a doctor may recommend medications and lifestyle changes.
  • For gastritis, treatment depends on the underlying cause but often involves taking medication.
  • Treatment for autoimmune disorders varies widely.

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

  • Quit smoking. This is often difficult, but a doctor can help build a cessation plan that works for you.
  • Brush your teeth twice a day and floss your teeth 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.