Our tongues are muscular organs with small, raised bumps covering them, called papillae. You'll notice these tiny bumps on the top and sides of your tongue. According to Mayo Clinic, when your papillae grow longer instead of shedding, a black tongue can appear. These papillae begin to trap food remnants and bacteria, leading to a dark, hairy looking substance sitting on the top of your tongue. "Black tongue" is a blanket term for the protein known as keratin building up. It can be other colors besides black, but it always appears to look hairy.
As noted by The American Academy of Oral Medicine, a black tongue is more likely to occur in males than females and occurs equally among all races. It is more likely to appear in older people, although it can arise at any age.
Causes of Tongue Discoloration
After the initial shock of discovering this unfamiliar condition, you probably have a lot of questions! You may be wondering, "why is my tongue black?" and "what does a black tongue mean?" Not to fear, most of the causes are simple and easy to address. Causes of black tongue include the following:
- Poor oral hygiene habits
- Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol or coffee/tea
- Using a mouthwash with an oxidizing agent like hydrogen peroxide
- Xerostomia, also known as dry mouth, caused by insufficient saliva production
- Smoking, which can cause bacteria to thrive in the warm, moist environment
- Eating a diet of mostly soft foods, which isn't helpful in the oral cleansing process
- The use of antibiotics and other medications that promote the development of fungi, yeast, and bacteria
Diagnosing and treating a black, hairy tongue begins with a visit to your dental professional so they can determine the state of your oral health. Black tongue syndrome itself doesn't cause any general health issues and is not contagious. But figuring out why you have it is important because its cause may be the source of other health issues. For example, poor oral hygiene has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia, respiratory infections, and diabetic complications. So if a black tongue is the first sign that you need to improve your oral health, it's essential to make that discovery!
Your dental professional will likely recommend increasing the frequency of your daily brushing. After brushing, you should clean between your teeth with floss or a water flosser (known as interdental cleaning). This will remove any food residue remaining in your mouth that could add to the buildup on your tongue. You can also use a tongue scraper as part of your oral care routine to give your tongue that extra cleaning step even after you brush!
A black tongue is reversible, and you can usually prevent it from happening by taking some necessary measures and rooting out its cause with the help of your dental professional. For example, if you have dry mouth symptoms, your dental professional may recommend mouth rinses or changes in your lifestyle to improve hydration. They might suggest changes to your diet, quitting smoking, trying new medications, or stopping current medications. These lifestyle tweaks can be the deciding factor of getting rid of your black tongue. Sometimes it can take some trial and error to figure out what works best in getting rid of it. Rest assured, your dental professional will be there to help you figure it out!
While the look of a black tongue can be alarming, it's a reversible and harmless condition. We recommend immediately stepping up your oral health routine and scheduling an appointment with your dental professional if your black tongue does not go away on its own. They'll be able to root out the cause, give guidance on treatment, and talk with you about permanent changes to your lifestyle to mitigate the chances of a black tongue ever reappearing!