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Has Your Tongue Ever Turned Yellow? Dentists Reveal When to Worry and How to Fix It

See the simple tool one dentist says removes build-up that can contribute to a discolored tongue

Have you ever woken up with a dry mouth and stumbled to the bathroom sink, only to find your tongue covered in a thick, yellowish paste? Though startling, this scenario is more common than you may think. We connected with several dentists to find out what causes yellow tongue and how to treat it.

What is yellow tongue?

Yellow tongue is exactly what it sounds like — visible tongue discoloration with a yellow or golden hue. But why do some people get it and others don’t? Priya Mistry, DDS, a board-certified dentist, says it has to do with the tiny bumps that cover our tongues called papillae.

“Papillae help us taste food and manipulate food when chewing,” Dr. Mistry explains. These bumps are typically 1-2 mm across (about the size of a pin head). But they can become inflamed or swollen. When this happens, Dr. Mistry says the papillae “easily trap debris — most commonly dead skin cells and bacteria.” The more debris present, the yellower your tongue becomes as it collects stains from the foods and drinks you ingest.

See an example in the video below:

4 causes of yellow tongue

Marie M. Jackson, DMD, FAGD, a practicing general dentist and dental expert for Listerine, says papillae inflammation can have multiple causes. They include:

1.   Not flossing enough can cause yellow tongue

Poor oral hygiene is the leading cause of yellow tongue. So brushing, flossing and cleaning your tongue are key to its prevention. Dr. Jackson says skipping these habits can lead to an “overgrowth of bacteria and change your tongue’s appearance.”

2.   Dry mouth can cause yellow tongue

If you take antihistamines or decongestants, or breathe through your mouth, you’re familiar with another common cause of yellow tongue — dry mouth. “Having a dry mouth disrupts salivary flow,” Dr. Mistry says. “Saliva flushes out dead skin cells and bacteria and breaks down food. If there isn’t adequate saliva, the papillae can become inflamed, causing a yellow tongue.”

See also: Dry Mouth Is Often The First Sign of COVID — and Menopause! — Dentists Explain What You Need To Know and How To Find Relief

3.   Lifestyle habits can cause yellow tongue

Our mouths contain hundreds of microorganisms that work together to support our oral microbiome. But stress, unhealthy eating, alcohol and tobacco use can rapidly change your mouth’s microbiome, inflaming the papillae and letting yellow tongue thrive.

4.    Underlying health conditions can cause yellow tongue

Rarely, yellow tongue is caused by systemic health problems like psoriasis, gastritis or jaundice that might have gone undiagnosed. “If jaundice is the cause, other tissue in the mouth may also be yellow, as well as the whites of the eyes and the skin,” says Naomi Goldman Levy, DDS, a practicing dentist and American Dental Association member. If you have these symptoms, contact your doctor.

How to get rid of yellow tongue

Even though yellow tongue looks scary, the good news is it’s relatively easy to treat at home. Here are 3 expert-approved tips:

1. Brush your tongue

The best, most effective way to treat (and prevent) yellow tongue is by keeping your tongue clean. “Nowadays, most manual toothbrushes have a tongue cleaner on the backside of the toothbrush,” Dr. Jackson says. “Use this to gently scrub your tongue twice daily. You can also use a nylon-bristled tongue cleaner to gently scrub your tongue.”

Another option? Using a tongue scraper.  “I recommend copper tongue scrapers as they’re antimicrobial,” Dr. Mistry says. For best results “scrape your tongue at least once daily. This effectively removes the buildup and gets rid of a yellow tongue.” One to try: MasterMedi Pure Copper Tongue Scraper.

This video explains how to scrape your tongue:

Similarly, Dr. Goldman recommends amping up your oral hygiene. “Twice daily brushing, flossing and rinsing with an alcohol-free mouthwash is ideal,” she says.  By following these recommendations “the yellow coating should go away within a week or two.”

2. Sip in moderation

It’s perfectly fine to enjoy an occasional glass of wine or cocktail. Just keep it to the CDC’s guidelines for women of no more than 4 alcoholic drinks per week. Dr. Mistry says cutting back even slightly can help prevent yellow tongue. Likewise, limiting alcohol and tobacco reduces the risk of dry mouth (another culprit behind yellow tongue).

Hydration is also important. Drinking water helps your body function optimally, but it also prevents excess bacteria from clinging to your tongue, preventing yellow discoloration and bad breath. (Discover more ways to get rid of bad breath.)

3. Sleep this way

Sleeping with your mouth open is another risk factor for dry mouth, and in turn, yellow tongue. Because dry mouth occurs for various reasons, like mouth breathing, allergies and sleep apnea, consult your doctor to determine the best approach. Elevating your head with a wedge pillow or using continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device can make all the difference.


More ways to keep your dental health in check:

Want to Get Rid of Bad Breath Once and for All? A Top Dentist Shares Her 4 Best Tips

Top Dentists Reveal How to Stop Sensitive Teeth Pain — Fast! 

Dentists Reveal 7 Foods for Healthy Gums, Including a Sweet Treat You’d Never Expect

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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