Why Is My Tongue White?

Updated August 19, 2016

Is your tongue white? Does it have a burning sensation? Is your tongue sore and does it hurt to move it? If so, you may have something wrong. The best thing you can do is to make an appointment and see your dentist to make sure there isn’t anything wrong with your health.

The color and texture of your tongue can be strong indicators of your overall health. A healthy tongue is pink, but what if your whole tongue has a white film over it or you have strange white spots on your tongue? Here are some common causes of whiteness on your tongue and information about what you can do to fix it.

Causes of a White Tongue

Have you looked in the mirror at your tongue lately and noticed that it is white? If so, you are not the only one. Many people have a white tongue, but what is causing it?

The most common reason for a white tongue is that the tiny projections on your tongue, called papillae, are swollen. Bacteria, dead cells, and other debris get caught between the papillae, causing a white film to develop.

There are several things that can lead to this condition, including:

  • An insufficient oral hygiene routine
  • A dry mouth, which can be caused by diabetes or other conditions
  • Congenital heart disease
  • Smoking or chewing tobacco
  • Breathing through your mouth, which can lead to dryness and swelling
  • Fever
  • Eating mostly soft foods, such as mashed potatoes or oatmeal
  • Drinking alcohol

How to Remedy a White Tongue

Why is My Tongue White?

Image via Flickr by stevendepolo

Some of the above-listed causes of a white tongue are serious and call for a visit with your physician, but there might be other simple things you can do to get your tongue back to a healthy color. You might want to try an oral rinse designed specifically for dry mouth, or you could adjust your diet so you eat a few rougher foods. And try to cut back on or eliminate your tobacco use altogether.

It is also essential to have a good oral hygiene routine. You should brush your teeth for two minutes twice a day, and be sure to brush your tongue, as well. Floss once a day, making the effort to reach even the teeth in the back of your mouth. When you're flossing, take care not to damage your gums. Use mouthwash to flush out bacteria. You might also want to try using a tongue scraper.

Be sure to visit your dentist at least twice a year for a cleaning and checkup. Your dentist will be able to give you further tips on how to keep your entire mouth in good shape.

What About White Patches on the Tongue?

What if your white tongue is not from swollen papillae? There are many other causes of a white tongue as well. Some of these include thrush, leukoplakia, geographic tongue, cancer, and syphilis.

If the whiteness on your tongue consists of spots rather than a film, this might point to a serious medical condition. It might be oral thrush, which is a yeast infection. With oral thrush, raised white lesions develop on the tongue that can be very painful. Your dentist can diagnose thrush and prescribe an antifungal medication to treat it.

The antifungal that your dentist may prescribe you for your oral thrush would consist of a medication called Nystatin. It is a liquid medication that you swish around in your mouth and then swallow. You usually have to do this for about a week. Your symptoms of a burning sensation on the tongue and tongue pain would be resolved, along with your white tongue.

Oral thrush can be caused by a variety of reasons. Most commonly it is due to an overuse of oral antibiotics to treat an infection. It can be caused by other more serious causes, though. Diseases such as undiagnosed diabetes can cause a white tongue because your saliva has large amounts of sugar in it which promotes the growth of the fungus Candida. Another reason a white tongue could occur is because of a weak immune system. Thrush is more likely to grow if your immune system is weakened from severe conditions such as HIV/AIDS or cancer. Both of these ailments can increase your risk of thrush as the fungus is harder to resist due to your immune system trying to fight the other illnesses.

Mouth cancer, tongue cancer, and syphilis are all other causes of white patches on the tongue. If you think you might have one of these conditions, see your doctor as soon as possible.


Leukoplakia causes white patches on your tongue that cannot be scraped off. They are usually thick and can form not only on your tongue, but also on your buccal mucosa (the lining of your cheeks), and the bottom of your mouth as well. Unfortunately, physicians do not have a clear understanding of why leukoplakia form. They believe it to be caused by nicotine in all forms. So, whether you smoke, dip, or chew, you could be at risk of developing leukoplakia. Your best bet to avoid this white coating is to stop using tobacco altogether. Not only will you be healthier, but your family will appreciate the fact you gave up the nasty habit.

Geographic Tongue

Another condition in which your tongue may become white is from geographic tongue. Geographic tongue is also called benign migratory glossitis, and it is a noncancerous, harmless condition. It is the absence of patches of papillae, otherwise known as taste buds. Usually, papillae are pinkish-white in color and line your tongue with their short projections. With portions of the papillae missing, your red tongue shines through giving your tongue the look of a map, hence the term geographic tongue.

Chances are, your white tongue is nothing to worry about. You might need to be a little more diligent about taking care of your mouth, or you might need to switch up your eating routine. However, you should still see a professional to make sure no serious medical problems are causing the whiteness.

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