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Yellow tongue

Medically reviewed on Mar 15, 2018

Definition

Yellow tongue — a yellow discoloration of your tongue — is usually a temporary, harmless problem. Most often, yellow tongue is an early sign of a disorder known as black hairy tongue. Rarely, yellow tongue may be a sign of jaundice, a yellowing of the eyes and skin, which sometimes indicates liver or gallbladder problems.

Self-care is usually all that's needed to treat yellow tongue, unless it's related to another medical condition.

Yellow tongue

Yellow tongue is most often an early sign of a disorder known as black hairy tongue.

Causes

Yellow tongue usually occurs as a result of a harmless buildup of dead skin cells on the tiny projections (papillae) on the surface of your tongue. Most commonly this occurs when your papillae become enlarged and bacteria in your mouth produce colored pigments.

Also, the longer-than-normal papillae can easily trap cells that have shed, which become stained by tobacco, food or other substances. Mouth breathing or dry mouth may also be linked to yellow tongue.

Other causes of a yellow tongue may include, for example:

  • Black hairy tongue
  • Geographic tongue
  • Jaundice, which sometimes is a sign of another medical condition

When to see a doctor

Medical treatment for yellow tongue usually isn't necessary. If tongue discoloration bothers you, try gently brushing your tongue with a solution that is 1 part hydrogen peroxide and 5 parts water once a day. Rinse your mouth with water afterward several times.

Quitting smoking and increasing fiber in your diet also may help by decreasing the bacteria in your mouth that cause yellow tongue and reducing the buildup of dead skin cells.

Schedule a doctor's visit if:

  • You're concerned about persistent discoloration of your tongue
  • Your skin or the whites of your eyes also appear yellow, as this may suggest jaundice

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