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Coated Tongue: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

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Medically Reviewed By Colgate Global Scientific Communications

If you’ve looked in the mirror and noticed a white coating on your tongue, you’re in the right place. Some details may surprise you about this symptom. We’ve got the scoop on what causes your tongue to look this way, what the underlying cause might be, and what you can do about it.

When to See a Doctor for a Coated Tongue

A coated tongue (also known as white tongue) is a symptom that causes your tongue to appear to have a white coating. This typically occurs when bacteria, food matter, and other dead cells accumulate on your tongue between its papillae (the features on the surface of your tongue that provide its distinctive texture).

Coated tongue occurs when the papillae of your tongue are raised or swollen, increasing their surface area and allowing debris to become trapped. You may see that your entire tongue is covered or only patches or sections of it. You may also notice an unpleasant taste in your mouth.

A coated tongue may be benign (harmless) from your lifestyle that could clear up with proper dental care or could be the symptom of a serious health condition. We'll discuss this in more detail below.

Causes of a Coated Tongue

A coated or white tongue doesn’t refer to one underlying condition but is instead a symptom produced by many potential causes. No matter the cause of your coated tongue, improper dental care and poor diet will worsen your symptoms and increase your likelihood of developing other dental problems in the future.

Risk factors that may increase your likelihood of developing white tongue include:

  • Improper oral hygiene
  • Medications, including antibiotics
  • Alcohol, smoking, tobacco products, and illegal drugs
  • Chronic health conditions like hypothyroidism, diabetes, and syphilis
  • Oral health conditions, including leucoplakia, oral lichen planus, geographic tongue, and oral thrush
  • Weakened immune system
  • Trauma to your mouth
  • Tongue and lip piercings
  • Cancer treatment
  • Dehydration and dry mouth (also known as xerostomia)

Coated Tongue Treatment and Prevention

Because a coated or white tongue is associated with a range of health issues, it can be difficult to diagnose on your own accurately. The appropriate white tongue treatment for your individual care will vary based on its severity and the underlying cause.

Regardless of the underlying cause of your coated tongue, there are some powerful steps you can take that may help prevent or treat it. These symptoms may sometimes resolve on their own if you practice proper dental care and consume a healthy, balanced diet. According to the Cleveland Clinic, you should see a dental or medical professional if this symptom doesn’t resolve after a few weeks.

Steps you can take to treat or prevent your coated tongue may include:

  • Gently brush your teeth twice a day with a soft-bristled toothbrush (for a full two minutes each time!) using a toothpaste that contains fluoride.
  • Carefully clean between your teeth once a day using floss, a flossing device, or an interdental brush.
  • Rinse after cleaning your teeth or after meals using an antiseptic mouthrinse.
  • Consider using a tongue scraper to help remove build-up on your tongue. Be sure to use it with a gentle touch.
  • If you experience dry mouth or dehydration, drink more water and use sugar-free chewing gum to promote saliva productions.
  • Avoid smoking, tobacco products, and illegal drugs.
  • Consume a healthy, balanced diet that’s low in sugary and acidic foods and drinks.
  • Schedule regular visits with your dental professional at least every six months.

We recommend speaking with your dental or medical professional for their expert insight, especially because your coated tongue may indicate other health concerns that would benefit from your attention. You now boast a fantastic understanding of what exactly coated tongue is, what it's associated with, and how the power is in your hands to do something about it.