A white tongue coating is a common condition that can have many different causes. In most cases, it is harmless and temporary, but sometimes it may indicate an underlying health issue. Here are some quick answers about white tongue coating:
What causes white tongue coating?
The most common causes of white tongue coating include:
- Poor oral hygiene
- Dry mouth
- Eating certain foods like milk, cheese, or yogurt
- Using an antibacterial mouthwash
- Oral thrush or candida overgrowth
- Oral lichen planus
Is white tongue coating serious?
In most cases, a white tongue is harmless and temporary. It may simply be caused by poor oral hygiene, dry mouth, or eating certain dairy products. However, sometimes a white coating that doesn’t go away may indicate:
- Oral thrush – a fungal infection that causes white lesions on the tongue and inner cheeks.
- Leukoplakia – white patches caused by excess cell growth that may be precancerous.
- Oral lichen planus – an inflammatory condition that produces white patches on the gums, tongue, or insides of the cheek.
- If the coating looks suspicious or doesn’t go away within a couple weeks, it’s a good idea to get it checked out by a dentist.
What does a thick white coating on the tongue mean?
A thick or heavy white coating on the tongue is often due to an overgrowth of bacteria or fungi. Potential causes include:
- Poor oral hygiene allowing bacteria or fungus to accumulate.
- Oral thrush – a fungal infection typically caused by an overgrowth of Candida yeast.
- Leukoplakia – thick, white patches that may be precancerous.
- Hairy leukoplakia – white, fuzzy patches caused by the Epstein-Barr virus.
- If the tongue has a thick white coating that doesn’t brush off easily, see your dentist to determine the cause and appropriate treatment.
What does a white tongue with spots mean?
White spots or dots on the tongue, especially when accompanied by a white coating, may indicate:
- Oral thrush – Candida yeast infection that causes creamy white lesions.
- Leukoplakia – Precancerous white patches, sometimes with red spots.
- Lichen planus – An autoimmune reaction that causes lacy white patches on the gums, tongue, or cheeks.
- If white spots or dots don’t go away within 2 weeks, it’s wise to visit your dentist to have them properly evaluated.
What causes a white tongue with red spots?
Some potential causes of a white tongue with red spots include:
- Leukoplakia – White patches with reddish spots are considered more serious.
- Oral thrush – A fungal overgrowth that causes creamy white lesions with underlying redness.
- Scarlet fever – Infection causing white coat and red papillae, along with sore throat and fever.
- Lichen planus – Autoimmune reaction causing lacy white and red lesions.
- Canker sores – Painful ulcers that appear white or gray with red borders.
- See your dentist promptly if you notice any white patches or spots with redness that don’t go away.
What are the best ways to get rid of white tongue coating?
You can try these home remedies to get rid of a white tongue:
- Brush your teeth and tongue gently twice a day.
- Use a tongue scraper daily to remove bacteria and debris.
- Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.
- Avoid smoking and limit alcohol intake.
- Cut back on dairy products if they seem to worsen the coating.
- Use an antifungal mouthwash if fungus is the suspected cause.
If home care doesn’t remove the white coating within 1-2 weeks, see your dentist or doctor to determine if treatment is needed for oral thrush, oral lichen planus or other underlying causes.
When to see a doctor
See your dentist or doctor promptly if you notice any of the following:
- White patches or spots that don’t brush off
- A thick white coating that doesn’t go away with brushing
- Red spots or bleeding in the white areas
- Pain or burning sensation
- White lesions combined with other symptoms like sore throat or fatigue
- White coating that lasts longer than 2 weeks
These may indicate an underlying health condition needing medical treatment. Early evaluation of white lesions can detect any precancerous changes.
Diagnosis of white tongue coating
To diagnose the cause of a white tongue coating, a dentist or doctor may:
- Ask about your medical history and symptoms
- Examine your mouth and tongue
- Test areas by wiping to see if they can be removed
- Perform a biopsy on suspicious lesions
- Order blood tests or cultures to check for infection
- Do an oral cancer screening
Based on the examination findings and test results, your doctor can determine the appropriate treatment.
Treatment for white tongue coating
Treatment depends on the underlying cause but may involve:
- Improving oral hygiene with brushing, flossing, and scraping the tongue
- Oral antifungal medication for thrush
- Antiviral medication for viral infections
- Oral steroids or immunosuppressants for lichen planus
- Surgical removal of any precancerous or cancerous lesions
- Stopping use of mouthwashes, smoking, or medications that can cause dry mouth or thrush
- Treating any underlying illness that may be contributing to thrush
For harmless causes like oral hygiene, cleaning the tongue daily and drinking plenty of water is usually sufficient. But for recurrent or persistent white tongue that may indicate an oral infection or precancer, see your doctor or dentist.
Home remedies for white tongue
You can try these home remedies to remove a white tongue coating:
- Brush your tongue gently when you brush your teeth, twice a day.
- Use a tongue scraper to remove debris and bacteria.
- Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.
- Avoid smoking and limit caffeine and alcohol.
- Rinse with an antiseptic mouthwash like listerine daily.
- Limit dairy intake if it seems to worsen the coating.
- Chew crunchy fruits and veggies like apples, celery, or carrots.
- Try probiotics and yogurt with live cultures.
- Use a baking soda and salt paste to gently exfoliate the tongue.
- Rinse with hydrogen peroxide mixed with warm water.
Always contact your dentist if the coating persists longer than 2 weeks or has red spots. Home remedies can remove harmless debris, but medical treatment is needed for fungal infections or precancer.
Prevention of white tongue coating
You can help prevent a white tongue coating by:
- Brushing your teeth twice daily.
- Cleaning your tongue thoroughly when brushing.
- Using a tongue scraper daily.
- Drinking plenty of fluids.
- Avoiding smoking and excess alcohol.
- Rinsing your mouth after using inhaled corticosteroids.
- Eating yogurt with live cultures.
- Going for regular dental cleanings and checkups.
Practicing good oral hygiene is the best way to prevent bacterial or fungal overgrowth on the tongue. But some white coatings may still arise depending on your health, medication use, or habits. Seek dental advice if a coating persists despite your best efforts.
When to see a doctor for white tongue coating
See your dentist or doctor if you have any of these symptoms along with a white tongue coating:
- White patches that don’t brush off
- Bleeding or soreness in white areas
- Red spots or speckles in white patches
- A thick, furry white coating
- Pain, burning or swelling of the tongue
- Bad breath that doesn’t resolve with brushing
- Difficulty eating or swallowing
- Immune deficiencies or frequent infections
- Unexplained weight loss
- Fatigue, fever or other unexplained symptoms
Certain conditions like oral thrush, oral cancer or precancer require examination and testing by a doctor. It’s important to get prompt professional care if you have any suspicious white lesions or worrying accompanying symptoms along with tongue coating.
Oral thrush is a fungal infection typically caused by an overgrowth of Candida yeast. Symptoms may include:
- White bumpy patches on the tongue, inner cheeks or throat
- Soreness, burning sensation or painful cracks at corners of mouth
- Creamy white lesions in mouth
- Red inflamed areas under white coating
- Cracking and redness at corners of mouth
- Loss of taste
- Cottony feeling in mouth
Oral thrush is most common in babies and older adults, as well as those with weakened immune systems. Treatment involves antifungal medications and addressing any underlying conditions contributing to thrush.
Leukoplakia causes thickened, white patches on the gums, tongue or inner cheeks. Key features include:
- Thick white or grayish patches
- Hard lesions that don’t wipe away
- Sometimes raised and wart-like
- Occurs on gums, under tongue, inner cheeks
- May have red speckles or spots indicating greater risk
Leukoplakia is linked to alcohol and tobacco use. Biopsy is needed to check for cancer. Precancerous lesions will need to be removed while regular monitoring is required if benign.
Oral lichen planus
Oral lichen planus causes white lacy patches on the insides of the cheeks, gums or tongue. Features include:
- Lacy white patches
- Red inflamed lesions
- Burning or pain in affected areas
- May involve gums, insides of cheek or tongue
- Chronic condition that comes and goes
Caused by an immune reaction, lichen planus typically doesn’t become cancerous. Mild cases may not require treatment, while corticosteroids or other drugs may be used for symptom relief in severe cases.
Oral hairy leukoplakia
Oral hairy leukoplakia appears as white, fuzzy patches on the tongue. Key traits are:
- White lesions with a hairy, wrinkled appearance
- Occurs most often on sides of tongue
- Painless condition
- Commonly occurs in those with weakened immunity
- Linked to Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)
Hairy leukoplakia is benign and usually requires no treatment beyond immune boosting medications. But since it signals reduced immunity, regular monitoring for other infections is needed.
When to see a dentist
It’s a good idea to see a dentist if you notice any of the following:
- White coating doesn’t go away with brushing
- White patches or spots on the tongue
- Red areas or spots in white lesions
- Pain, soreness or burning of the tongue
- Bad breath persists despite brushing
- Difficulty eating or swallowing
- White lesions last longer than 2 weeks
A dentist can examine your mouth, test areas and determine if biopsy or testing is needed. Prompt evaluation of any persistent white tongue coating allows early treatment of precancer, fungal infections, or other issues.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor promptly if you have a white tongue along with:
- Fever, fatigue or other unexplained symptoms
- Frequent or severe infections
- Immune deficiency from illness or medication
- Unexplained weight loss or appetite changes
- Mouth pain or difficulty swallowing
Your doctor can check for underlying conditions like diabetes or HIV that may increase infections. Blood tests may help diagnose lowered immunity or nutritional deficiencies contributing to thrush.
- White tongue coating usually results from debris, bacteria or dead cells on the tongue surface.
- Causes include poor oral hygiene, smoking, dry mouth, thrush, lichen planus.
- Mild cases can be normal, but persistent thick white coating may indicate an underlying issue.
- Red spots in white areas may be a sign of precancer or more serious conditions.
- See a dentist promptly if white patches don’t go away with brushing or cause pain.
- Dentists can test lesions and do biopsies to check for fungal infections, cancer risks.
- See a doctor for white tongue with fever, appetite changes or swallowing difficulties.
- Brush tongue daily, drink water, and limit irritants to prevent benign white coating.
The bottom line
A thin white tongue coating is normal, but thick persistent white lesions may indicate oral thrush, leukoplakia, or other issues needing dental evaluation. Seek prompt medical care if you have white patches combined with red spots, pain, swelling, or other concerning symptoms. With an early diagnosis, dentists and doctors can properly treat any pre-cancerous changes or infections causing a white tongue.