Why Is Your Tongue Yellow? Causes and Treatment Options

By Arielle Mitton
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
May 18, 2022

It’s normal for your tongue to range slightly in color as you eat and drink different foods throughout the day.

Medications, alcohol, and tobacco can also affect the color of your tongue, and sometimes it can look yellow or off-white.

If your tongue is yellow, it does not necessarily mean that something is wrong, but it may be a sign of an underlying health condition. 

This article will discuss in detail what your yellow tongue may signify and the causes of yellow tongue.

I’ll also go over treatment options, as well as when you should see a medical provider for further advice.

What Is Yellow Tongue?

In most cases, having a yellow tongue is harmless.

A thick, yellowish, or off-white coating on the tongue can be noticed when dead skin cells, food, bacteria, or other colored particles get trapped on the tongue’s surface.

Most of the time, this will go unnoticed and will clear up with good oral hygiene and using at-home treatments. 

Symptoms

Apart from your tongue appearing yellow, you may experience these additional symptoms that could signify the cause of it:

Each cause of yellow tongue will present its own set of symptoms, even though many can overlap, so it is important to seek advice from a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis. 

Common Causes

In some cases, yellow tongue could be caused by an underlying medical condition or lifestyle habit.

Diet

Many prepackaged and processed foods contain dyes and colorants that can leave yellow and colored stains on the tongue.

This includes coffee, tea, chips, candy, sports drinks, condiments, cheese, and even some vitamins and supplements. 

Poor Oral Hygiene

Practicing good oral hygiene is the most common and effective way to treat and prevent your tongue from turning yellow.

Cleaning your teeth and tongue regularly and after every meal helps keep bacteria away from the surface of the tongue.

While keeping the intake of sugary foods to a minimum will help, you can also make sure to rinse and clean your mouth after consuming sugar to minimize any risk.

Eczema and Autoimmune Conditions

Eczema and some other autoimmune conditions can weaken the body’s immune system, leaving bacteria to grow on the tongue leading it to turn yellow or discolored.

Psoriasis is another autoimmune condition that can cause yellow tongue; however, oral psoriasis is an extremely rare condition

Dry Mouth or Mouth Breathing

Breathing through your mouth for long periods of time can make your mouth dry.

Dry mouth is a condition in which your salivary glands do not make enough saliva, which is essential as it helps remove bacteria and germs from the mouth and acts as a layer of protection as well. 

Since both dry mouth and mouth breathing prevent the saliva from forming properly, your tongue is more at risk of getting discolored. 

Mouthwashes That Contain Oxidizing Agents and Certain Medications and Drugs

Mouthwashes and toothpaste that contain peroxide, menthol, thymol, witch hazel, alcohol or eucalyptus can change the color of your tongue. 

Some drugs and medications also contain elements that stain, or cause pigment discoloration. 

Oral Candidiasis

Oral thrush, or oral candidiasis, is a yeast infection that affects the oral cavity. It can affect almost anyone, however, those living with compromised immune systems are more at risk.

Other risk factors include using a steroid inhaler. If you do use one, be sure to rinse out your mouth after each use to decrease the risk of thrush.

Symptoms include a yellowish/white thick layer on the tongue, cracks and sores inside and around the mouth, loss of taste or bad taste, and difficulty in swallowing. 

Geographic Tongue

The little bumps on the top of your tongue (papillae) help you grip food, contain taste buds, and give your tongue its rough texture.

When some of these bumps are missing, your tongue can appear discolored, red, and yellow.

Geographic tongue gets its name because the missing patches make the tongue resemble a map.

While most conditions of geographic tongue are harmless, you can use mild mouthwash and pain relievers to soothe any discomfort.

Jaundice

Most people know that jaundice can cause your skin and eyes to turn yellow, but in some cases, it can make your tongue appear yellow as well.

Worrisome symptoms that can accompany jaundice include weight loss, vomiting, fever, fatigue, and other flu-like symptoms.

If you are experiencing jaundice, with or without other symptoms, make sure to seek medical care immediately.

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Diagnosis and Tests

Your medical providerwill diagnose the cause of your yellow tongue after examining your tongue and mouth and by asking you some questions about your lifestyle and medical history.

Some may even conduct additional tests like a blood test, biopsy, endoscopy, or an imaging test.

Management and Treatment

In most cases, yellow tongue can be managed by practicing good oral hygiene.

Gently scrub the surface of your tongue with a soft toothbrush, and rinse your mouth throughout the day.

Each cause of yellow tongue will be treated and managed in its own way. 

  • Diet: If you suspect that your tongue is turning yellow due to something you are consuming, try to avoid foods and liquids with food coloring and stay away from coffee, tea, and alcohol for some time.
  • Dry mouth: Drink plenty of water and other liquids throughout the day. Avoid substances that can leave your mouth dry or interfere with the production of saliva such as tobacco, chewing gum, alcohol, and caffeine. After a medical provider examines you, they may prescribe some medications and therapy to help with mouth breathing and to stimulate the production of more saliva.
  • Oral Candidiasis: This condition is easily treatable using antifungal medications. Some are available over-the-counter and some will be prescribed after a consultation with a medical professional. You can also try some home remedies using apple cider vinegar, probiotics, and baking soda. 
  • Jaundice: Always see a healthcare provider if you notice jaundice for proper diagnosis and treatment plans.. Your medical provider may put you on medications to treat jaundice depending on the cause. 

If your yellow tongue does not go away even after you attempt to treat it on your own, you should seek help from a medical provider. Never take medication without expert advice. Our board-certified clinicians are available 24/7.

Prevention

To reduce some of the risk factors that can cause yellow tongue, try these prevention tips:

  • Practice good oral hygiene: Brush your teeth twice a day and rinse your mouth after every meal. Floss your teeth once a day and gently scrub your tongue and insides of your mouth using a soft-bristled toothbrush.
  • Keep tobacco and alcohol to a minimum: Excessive chewing and smoking tobacco can cause discoloration of the teeth, gums, and tongue. If possible, avoid tobacco products entirely.
  • Consume a healthy diet: Drink plenty of water to keep your body hydrated and to avoid your mouth getting dry. Eat foods that are nutritious and high in fiber. Sometimes avoiding black coffee and tea can help prevent discoloration. 
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When to See a Medical Provider

If you have a yellow tongue for an extended period of time and you notice any of the other symptoms mentioned above, seek help from a medical provider.

They will run tests, conduct an examination, and ask you some questions to determine the cause of your yellow tongue. 

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app? Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does a yellowish tongue mean?
Often harmless, a yellowish tongue could mean that your oral hygiene habits need to be improved. Bacteria and particles of food remain on the surface of your tongue, causing it to appear discolored.
How do you get rid of a yellow tongue?
Get rid of a yellow tongue by brushing your teeth, tongue, gums, and inside of your mouth regularly and properly. Rinse your mouth after every meal and practice good dental and oral hygiene. If it does not go away in a few days then seek help from a medical expert.
Does COVID-19 make your tongue yellow?
Some people may experience loss of taste, discoloration of the tongue, and a sore throat when they catch COVID-19, as they would with influenza. Seek help from a medical provider if your symptoms worsen, or if you suspect you have COVID.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

Arielle Mitton

Dr. Mitton is a board certified internal medicine physician with over 6 years of experience in urgent care and additional training in geriatric medicine. She completed her trainings at Mount Sinai Hospital and UCLA. She is on the board of the Hyperemesis Research Foundation to help women suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum.