Yellow Tongue

Overview

What is yellow tongue?

Yellow tongue is a yellow discoloration of the tongue. In most cases, this condition is harmless and temporary. A variety of factors may cause tongue discoloration. In some cases, yellow tongue indicates underlying disease.

Most people recover completely from yellow tongue. Self-care and better attention to oral hygiene usually resolve the issue.

Who is likely to have yellow tongue?

Anyone can develop yellow tongue. People who do certain activities, such as smoking, may be more likely to experience tongue discoloration.

Symptoms and Causes

What causes yellow tongue?

Many factors cause yellow tongue and other types of tongue discoloration, including:

  • Certain foods and vitamins
  • Chewing tobacco
  • Overgrowth of bacteria on the surface of the tongue
  • Smoking

Yellow tongue may also signal a condition called black hairy tongue syndrome. Black hairy tongue syndrome occurs when keratin, a protein, builds up on the tongue surface. This buildup gives the tongue a hairy appearance.

In some cases, yellow tongue is a symptom of an underlying medical condition. Psoriasis, a condition causing flaky, scaly skin, may cause yellow patches on the tongue surface.

Rarely, yellow tongue occurs due to a buildup of bilirubin in the tongue. Bilirubin is formed by the breakdown of red blood cells. Bilirubin buildup is also known as jaundice. It often causes yellow skin and a yellowing of the whites of the eyes.

What are the symptoms of yellow tongue?

In most cases, yellow tongue causes no symptoms other than yellow tongue discoloration.

Yellow tongue that progresses to black hairy tongue syndrome may cause symptoms including:

  • Halitosis, or bad breath
  • Gagging
  • Nausea
  • Taste distortions

Diagnosis and Tests

How is yellow tongue diagnosed?

Your doctor diagnoses yellow tongue after examining your tongue and mouth.

Management and Treatment

How is yellow tongue treated?

In most cases, proper oral hygiene practices resolve yellow tongue completely. A toothbrush or tongue scraper may help remove any bacteria or other buildup on the surface of the tongue.

Stopping chewing tobacco or smoking may prevent future tongue discoloration.

What complications are associated with yellow tongue?

Rarely, yellow tongue is a symptom of an underlying condition called jaundice. If you have jaundice, a yellow chemical compound called bilirubin builds up in the blood. This buildup may indicate liver damage or dysfunction.

Prevention

Can yellow tongue be prevented?

Regular oral hygiene, such as tooth brushing, tongue scraping and using mouthwash, is the best way to prevent yellow tongue.

Outlook / Prognosis

What is the prognosis (outlook) for people with yellow tongue?

In most cases, yellow tongue resolves completely with good oral hygiene.

Living With

When should I call my doctor?

If you notice a yellow tongue, yellowish whites of the eyes, and yellow skin, notify your doctor immediately. These may be signs of a more serious underlying condition called jaundice.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/01/2019.

References

  • Gurvits GE, Tan A. Black hairy tongue syndrome. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4138463/) World J Gastroenterol. 2014;20:10845. Accessed 2/14/19.
  • Merck Manual Professional Version. Tongue Discoloration and Other Changes. (https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/dental-disorders/lip-and-tongue-disorders/tongue-discoloration-and-other-changes) Accessed 2/14/19.
  • The American Academy of Oral Medicine. Hairy Tongue. (https://www.aaom.com/hairy-tongue) Accessed 2/14/19.
  • Ye J, Cai X, et al. Bacillus as a potential diagnostic marker for yellow tongue coating. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5006162/) Sci Rep. 2016;6:32496. Accessed 2/14/19.

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