Common causes of a white tongue include poor oral hygiene, dehydration, tobacco use, and infection. Treatment for a white tongue depends on the cause.

White tongue is a term used to describe any area of the tongue that has a grayish-white coating on it. The coating may cover the entire tongue, or it may appear in patches.

In this article, we look at common causes of a white tongue and home remedies to eliminate the problem.

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The most common cause of a white tongue is poor oral hygiene. Small bumps on the tongue called papillae can swell up and become inflamed in a mouth that is not cared for well.

Plenty of germs, debris, food particles, and dead cells can get stuck between these papillae. This causes the tongue to appear white as the particles build.

Brushing and flossing incorrectly and not cleaning the tongue adequately are the primary causes of this buildup.


In the case of debris buildup on the tongue, practicing proper brushing and flossing and ensuring proper hygiene will often treat white tongue appearance.

Dehydration and dry mouth can increase the risk of oral infection via saliva depletion and cause the tongue’s papillae to swell.

As the papillae increase in size, there is a higher risk of food, bacteria, and other debris getting caught around them – leading to buildups that can appear white in color.


Staying hydrated throughout the day can keep all the body’s cells in working order, including the tongue.

Breathing through the mouth at night, medication side effects and underlying conditions such as oral thrush and diabetes can cause dry mouth. Treatment for this will depend on the cause.

Oral lichen planus is a chronic inflammatory condition affecting the mouth and tongue. It can also affect the lips, inside of the cheeks, and gums.

Symptoms that affect the mouth include:

  • white, lace-like patches of skin
  • ulcers
  • pain, including discomfort, soreness, or a burning sensation
  • swelling and redness


Oral lichen planus is a chronic condition, and in many cases, a doctor or dentist will simply monitor it to make sure lesions heal properly.

In severe cases, a doctor may prescribe topical or oral corticosteroids.

Irritants such as tobacco and alcohol can lead to leukoplakia. It may also result from inflammatory conditions and irritation from dentures. It can affect all mouth areas, including the tongue, cheeks, and gums.

Leukoplakia may appear as thick, white patches a person cannot scrape off. Sometimes, the patches may appear red and white.


A healthcare professional should monitor leukoplakia to make sure it is not getting worse. They may recommend cutting down the amount of alcohol a person drinks or stopping smoking.

Sometimes, a doctor needs to remove the patches with surgery.

Oral thrush is another condition that may cause the tongue to appear white. Oral thrush is a fungal infection of Candida yeast.

Symptoms include:

  • white or off-white patches in the mouth and on the tongue
  • unpleasant taste or loss of taste
  • pain, especially when eating or drinking
  • redness or soreness


Treatment for oral thrush typically includes antifungal medications. A person applies these medications to the inside of the mouth for 1 to 2 weeks until the condition has run its course. For severe cases, a healthcare professional may prescribe oral or intravenous antifungal medications.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that can lead to symptoms in several areas of the body, including the mouth.

Symptoms include:

  • white patches on the tongue, lips, and mouth
  • red and white sores, known as chancres, on the tongue or lips
  • firm, raised lesions in the mouth


Syphilis requires medical treatment with the antibiotic penicillin. This antibiotic kills the bacteria that cause the disease. People who are allergic to penicillin may take a different type of antibiotic.

Reducing irritants in the mouth, such as alcohol and tobacco, may also help clear up the white patches.

Rarer, but sometimes serious conditions can lead to white patches on the tongue.

Mouth or tongue cancer may cause a white tongue. Common causes of these types of cancer include chronic tobacco or alcohol use and human papillomavirus (HPV) infections.

Underlying chronic inflammatory disorders may influence a white tongue as well.

Most appearances of a white tongue will clear up easily, although this is not always the case.

If the symptoms do not respond to basic oral care or occur alongside other symptoms, a person should speak with a doctor.

Some home remedies and habits may also help remove a white tongue.


Probiotics are another way to influence oral symptoms, such as a white tongue. Probiotics are strains of bacteria that are good for the digestive system.

A 2017 review noted that probiotic bacteria can occupy the mouth and the gut. In some cases, these bacteria can help fight off infectious yeasts and other bad strains of bacteria.

While the evidence is inconclusive, probiotics may still help balance the environment in the mouth and prevent a white tongue.

Baking soda scrub

Adding food-grade baking soda to a toothbrush and scrubbing the tongue, teeth, and gums may help reduce the bacteria that cause a white tongue.

Raw garlic

Eating garlic may help the body fight off infections caused by bacteria and fungi. Research noted that garlic has both antibacterial and antifungal properties, including the ability to fight off Candida.

Tongue scraping

Gently scraping the tongue from back to front may also help reduce and remove the bacteria and debris that settle in the mouth.

While it is not always possible to avoid getting a white tongue, basic oral hygiene can help prevent many cases. This includes brushing the teeth twice a day and flossing at least once a day.

Many people also benefit from using a tongue scraper daily or brushing the tongue with a toothbrush.

There are many causes of a white tongue, ranging from poor oral hygiene to inflammatory immune conditions.

Symptoms may not always respond immediately to improvements in hygiene or lifestyle choices, but improving oral health is suggested for anyone with a white tongue.

In rare cases, a white tongue indicates a serious underlying condition. Following the treatment plan set out by a doctor is the best way to relieve symptoms.v

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