A white, furry coating on the tongue is something we’ve all woken up to at some point or other. And usually, it’s nothing to worry about – just a slightly off-putting mix of dead cells and bacteria or fungi that a tongue scraper and some water can sort out! But in some cases, a white tongue may point to an underlying problem – for instance, when it’s accompanied by pain or when it lasts longer than a couple of weeks. Read on to find out about some conditions which could cause your tongue to look white.1
1. Ama And Excess Kapha
According to Ayurveda, a white build-up on your tongue is a toxic matter known as “ama.” When food is not digested properly, it tends to accumulate and clog the intestinal tract. Some remnants of this toxic buildup can be seen on the tongue as a thick, white residue.
Formation of some ama is a normal body process and Ayurveda recommends clearing it on a regular basis with a tongue scraper. Using a tongue scraper first thing in the morning should also to be a part of your daily oral hygiene. Ancient texts describe the benefits of using gold, silver, or copper tongue scrapers but you may have to be content with one made from stainless steel or plastic!
Keep in mind that though it’s easily visible on your tongue, ama doesn’t just affect your tongue. This toxin circulates throughout your body. If there is excess build-up, fasting or going on a mono-diet of vegetable soups or khichari (a rice and lentil soup) for a couple of days is thought to help cleanse the body. It does this by giving your digestive fire or “agni” the opportunity to process these toxins. You’ll find that your tongue looks cleaner after you fast.2
Another factor that contributes to a white tongue is an imbalance of kapha, the bodily humor that’s associated with the elements of earth and water. This imbalance may result in conditions like indigestion, congestion, blocked sinus, and digestive problems. An Ayurvedic practitioner will examine your tongue (jivha pariksha) in tandem with other signs and arrive at a diagnosis specific to your case.3
Aside from this Ayurvedic perspective on the white coating on your tongue, certain specific medical conditions could also be to blame. Some of them include:
Leukoplakia is a condition in which you get raised, white or gray patches on your tongue and other parts of your mouth. The patches aren’t usually painful though you may experience pain when you have spicy or acidic food. These patches can’t be removed by scraping or brushing and may be the result of excess cells being produced from your mouth’s lining. Irritation of the tongue due to smoking, alcohol, dentures, or rough teeth may lead to this condition.
Leukoplakia is usually not harmful. However, in some cases it can turn cancerous – often years, and sometimes decades, after it first occurs.
What to do: If something is irritating your tongue, eliminating that may clear up this condition. Quitting smoking, cutting off alcohol, and dealing with rough teeth or dentures may help tackle leukoplakia. If that doesn’t work, your doctor may suggest medication or surgery to remove the patch. Also, do get any patches checked regularly to make sure that they’re not turning cancerous.4
3. Oral Lichen Planus
Oral lichen planus causes white patches and lacy streaks on your tongue and other parts of your mouth. Mild cases don’t typically cause discomfort or pain. But some people tend to have red painful gums, a burning sensation in the mouth, and sore patches. Although the exact causes of this condition aren’t known, it may be due to an immune or allergic reaction. Exposure to certain chemicals, dyes, or medicines as well as medical conditions like hepatitis C can increase your risk for lichen planus.
What to do: This is typically not a harmful condition and mild cases may not require any treatment. Antiseptic mouthwashes, steroid sprays and mouth rinses made by dissolving steroid tablets in water are recommended in severe cases.5 Home remedies such as turmeric, aloe vera, and ginger juice can also help.
4. Geographic Tongue
Geographic tongue is a condition in which you get irregular red patches with a light colored or white border on your tongue. This makes your tongue look a bit like a map – hence, the name! The patches may change their appearance quickly from one day to the other. This changing pattern is due to the loss of small projections known as papillae present on your tongue. You may also experience a burning sensation and soreness when you have this condition. We don’t yet know what exactly causes geographic tongue but experts think that a vitamin B deficiency or irritation caused by spicy foods or alcohol may be to blame.
What to do: Geographic tongue is not harmful and doesn’t really require treatment. It can cause some discomfort, however, which may be eased with steroid rinses or antihistamine gels. You can also try a salt water rinse. Also, avoid foods which irritate your tongue if you have this condition.6
5. Oral Thrush
Oral thrush is a fungal infection that develops in the mouth, causing white or red sore plaques. Unlike the plaque seen in leukoplakia, these patches can be scraped off. You may also experience a burning sensation on your tongue if you have this condition. Oral thrush is caused by a fungus known as candida which lives harmlessly in the mouth of many people. However, changes in the chemical environment of your mouth can wipe out good bacteria which control the growth of this fungus. The overgrowth of candida can then cause an infection. Your chances of getting oral thrush are higher if you take antibiotics frequently, have diabetes, have a weak immune system, use dentures, or have a vitamin B or iron deficiency.7
What to do: Antifungal lozenges and medications are used to clear oral thrush. Natural remedies like yogurt and garlic can also help fight the candida fungus.
Syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease caused by Treponema pallidum bacteria, can result in white patches in the mouth. It is transmitted by coming directly in contact with a syphilitic sore found in the vagina, genitals, rectum, anus, mouth, and lips. It can cause a single, small, and painless ulcer in your mouth or a sore on your tongue somewhere between 10 days and 3 months after you’re exposed to the bacteria. You may then go on to develop white plaques known as syphilitic leukoplakia on your tongue. Other symptoms of this condition include a red blotchy rash usually found on your palms or soles, small genital wart-like growths on the vulva or near the anus, joint pains, headaches, fever, tiredness, and swollen glands in the groin, armpits, or neck. If the infection is not treated, it can spread to other parts of your body like the brain and cause serious medical problems.
7. Oral Cancer
Oral cancer can cause white or reddish patches on your tongue or other parts of your mouth. Other symptoms include bleeding, pain or difficulty while swallowing, loose teeth, earache, lump in the neck, or a sore in the mouth that doesn’t heal. Using tobacco and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol increase your risk of oral cancer. So can having an HPV (human papillomavirus) infection, a sexually transmitted disease, and a history of neck or head cancer.
What to do: Get any white patches in your mouth checked to rule out oral cancer. Radiation therapy, surgery, or chemotherapy may be needed depending on the diagnosis.10
|↑1||Coated or white tongue. National Health Service.|
|↑2||Shunya, Acharya. Ayurveda Lifestyle Wisdom: A Complete Prescription to Optimize Your Health, Prevent Disease, and Live with Vitality and Joy. Sounds True, 2017.|
|↑3||Pole, Sebastian. Ayurvedic medicine: the principles of traditional practice. Elsevier Health Sciences, 2006.|
|↑4||Leukoplakia. National Institutes of Health.|
|↑5||Lichen planus. National Institutes of Health.|
|↑6||Geographic tongue. National Institutes of Health.|
|↑7||Oral thrush. Healthdirect, Australia.|
|↑8||Syphilis. National Health Service.|
|↑9||Syphilis. National Institutes of Health.|
|↑10||Oral Cancer. National Institutes of Health.|