The causes of a white tongue and how to prevent it

The causes of a white tongue and how to prevent it
White tongue can be caused by a yeast infection, dehydration, and smoking.Tunatura/Getty Images
  • A white tongue can be caused by dehydration or yeast and its usually nothing to worry about.
  • Smoking can also cause a white tongue so its important to avoid triggers like cigarettes.
  • If the white film on the tongue doesn't move when you scrape it, see a doctor.

Looking in the mirror and seeing random white patches or a thin, white film on your tongue can be worrisome. It might just be poor oral hygiene or dehydration, but it may also be a sign of medical conditions like a yeast infection or inflammatory conditions.

"[White tongue] is fairly common and it is usually nothing to worry about. But on rare occasions and depending on the clinical appearance, it can mimic other more serious conditions such as an infection or early cancer," says Diana V. Messadi, DDS, MMSc, DMSc, professor of dentistry and oral medicine and associate dean for academic affairs at the UCLA School of Dentistry.

Here are the potential causes of a white tongue and how you can prevent it.

Causes of a white tongue

  • Dry mouth, a condition where the salivary glands don't make enough saliva
  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Dehydration
  • Mouth irritation from dental instruments
  • Smoking or chewing tobacco
  • Breathing through the mouth
  • Alcohol misuse

These factors cause the papillae - the tiny bumps on the tongue that contain taste buds - to swell up and enlarge, allowing bacteria, dead cells, or debris like food and sugar to get lodged between them. These dead cells cause a buildup which appears as the thin, white film or coating that you see on the tongue.

However, a white tongue may also be a symptom of medical conditions, such as:


  • Oral thrush: If you have creamy white lesions on your tongue that resemble the appearance of cottage cheese, you may have oral thrush, a yeast infection caused by a type of fungus called Candida. It is commonly treated with antifungal medications.
  • Syphilis: Large, raised, and white lesions may develop inside the mouth if you have syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Penicillin, an antibiotic medication, is usually prescribed to kill the organism that causes syphilis.
  • Leukoplakia: Thickened white or graying patches on or beneath the tongue are a symptom of leukoplakia. Stopping tobacco or alcohol use usually clears it up, but if it shows signs of early cancer, the doctor may remove white patches with a scalpel and destroy cancer cells.
  • Oral lichen planus: Lacy, white, and raised patches on the tongue, cheeks, and gum might be a non-contagious inflammatory condition called oral lichen planus. It is a chronic condition without a cure, but topical agents or medications may be recommended by a doctor to address severe symptoms.
  • Geographic tongue: Geographic tongue, a different non-contagious inflammatory condition, may cause a map-like pattern of red and white patches on your tongue. It doesn't require any treatment and it usually resolves on its own, but if it causes discomfort, you may take pain relievers or mouth rinses with anesthetic or antihistamine.
  • Gastrointestinal disorders: Disorders like gastritis, indigestion, and ulcerative colitis may also cause a white coating on the tongue because the mouth is part of the gastrointestinal tract. These gastrointestinal disorders have different treatments, so you need to be properly diagnosed by a doctor to address it.

"You should worry about the white tongue when you try to brush or scrape it off and it does not [scrape off]" says Messadi. "When there are sores and a mix of white and red areas on [the] tongue, then, at that time, you need to seek healthcare advice."

Insider's takeaway

Different factors can cause a white tongue, so consult your primary care provider or dentist to know the underlying reason. If the white patches on your tongue are caused by a certain medical condition, it's crucial to seek treatment so you can manage its symptoms.

To prevent white tongue, maintain good oral health at all times by doing the following:

  • Stay hydrated. Drinking water washes away bacteria in your mouth and helps you avoid dry mouth.
  • Practice good oral hygiene. According to Messadi, non-alcoholic mouthwashes may be beneficial, but it's also important that you brush your teeth and tongue twice a day.
  • Avoid irritating your mouth. Chronic irritation from alcohol or tobacco use may cause leukoplakia. Eating acidic, crispy, and spicy foods can irritate your mouth as well, which may lead to the formation of canker sores.
Not cleaning your tongue could be the reason for bad breath - here's how to clean it properly 7 tried and true tips to relieve the sensitivity for your poor burnt tongue What is tongue tie, why it's a problem, and when to treat it How to whiten your teeth and prevent stains with 5 effective methods