What is black hairy tongue?

Black hairy tongue is a temporary, harmless and fairly common condition in which the top of the tongue looks hairy. However, the substance on the tongue is not really hair and it’s not always black – it can be brown, green, white or other colors.

Little bumps on the top of the tongue, called filiform papillae, grow and collect food and bacteria, which provide the color. The papillae are usually about 1 millimeter (1/32 inch) long and they’re supposed to fall off, like a layer of skin being shed, before they grow. The shedding process is called desquamation. If the papillae don’t fall off, they can grow as long as 18 millimeters (3/4 inch).

Black hairy tongue affects about 13 percent of people at some point in their lives, according to the American Academy of Oral Medicine. It happens in all population groups but is more common in men and in older people.

What are the symptoms of black hairy tongue?

Usually, the tongue’s appearance is the only symptom, and it doesn’t hurt. Symptoms that appear in some cases include a burning, tickling or gagging sensation, bad breath and food not tasting the way it normally does.

What causes black hairy tongue?

Poor oral hygiene and/or a diet of soft foods can cause the problem, because the shedding process is helped by stimulation and abrasion to the top of the tongue. It can also be caused by excessive use of coffee, tea, tobacco or alcohol, certain medications, radiation treatment, dryness in the mouth and some kinds of mouthwash.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/07/2018.


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