What is a yellow tongue and how do you get rid of it? Generally, a yellow tongue is harmless and goes away on its own, except in rare instances. This article will discuss the common yellow tongue causes, including their possible medical and home treatments.
- 1 What is a Yellow Tongue
- 2 Symptoms of a Yellow Tongue
- 3 Yellow Tongue Causes
- 4 What Causes Yellow Under Tongue
- 5 Yellow Tongue in Babies
- 6 How to Treat a Yellow Tongue
What is a Yellow Tongue
Yellow tongue usually occurs from bacteria growing in your mouth. The papillae on the surface of your tongue become yellow colored and enlarged. The yellow film/coating on the tongue is generally temporary and harmless tongue discoloration that makes its surface to look yellow in color.
Yellow tongue can affect both children and adults. Also, pregnant women are more likely to experience yellow tongue due to hormonal changes. Self-care is usually all that’s needed to cure yellow tongue, unless it’s related to underlying condition.
In rare cases it can be the cause of jaundice which makes the eye whites and skin to appear yellow due to liver or gallbladder problems. Jaundice is a symptom caused by too much bilirubin in your blood, called “hyperbilirubinemia”.
Symptoms of a Yellow Tongue
Depending on the cause, yellow tongue symptoms may include a bad taste in mouth, bad breath, cold, dry mouth, fever, sore throat, burning sensation, little bumps on the tongue, red spots on throat/tongue, achy/stiff joints, acid reflux, and furry tongue that’s yellow in color.
The yellow discolorations may appear on the back of the tongue, at the tip of the tongue, under the tongue, or on the sides. Sometimes, your roof of the mouth, gums, inside cheeks, and other parts of your mouth might turn yellowish.
Additionally, you may experience a yellow tongue right in the morning when you wake up. It all depends on what could be behind it.
Yellow Tongue Causes
Black Hairy Tongue
Yellow tongue is usually an early sign of black hairy tongue, which is a condition that causes the nipple-like projections (papillae) on your tongue to become too long and don’t slough off like the usual. This gives the tongue its hairy appearance.
A black hairy tongue looks nasty, but it’s harmless and common. The tongue appears discolored because of the debris and bacteria that accumulate on the taste buds. In some cases, your tongue could appear brown, blue, green, or yellow. 
In general, black hairy tongue doesn’t cause any discomfort. Other people complain of nausea, itching in the back part of the roof of the mouth, strange metallic taste, and tongue burning sensation (due to excessive growth of Candida albicans).
Regular Intake of Certain Drugs
Take a look at the drugs you’re currently taking. One of them might be the reason you have a yellow tongue. Examples of drugs that could cause tongue discoloration are antibiotics (penicillin, tetracycline, and cephalosporin), corticosteroids for inflammation, and bismuth-containing drugs (Pepto-Bismol).
How do these drugs cause tongue discoloration?
Let’s take bismuth-containing drugs as examples. Bismuth is a drug for diarrhea, hyperacidity, and bacterial infections. When a tiny amount of the drug mixes with the sulfur in your saliva and digestive tract, it forms bismuth sulfide, a chemical compound that could cause tongue discoloration.
Excessive Use of Alcohol-Based Mouthwashes
Alcohol is present in many popular mouthwash products and adult beverages, like beer, hard liquor, and wine. According to Dr. John Reitz, most of the cases of black hairy tongue he encountered in his practice were due to excessive use of mouthwash.
Most commercial mouthwash products contain high amounts of alcohol. In fact, a study showed that the best-selling brands contain twice the alcohol content of wine.  Alcohol is a carrier agent for certain active ingredients in mouthwash, such as thymol, menthol, and eucalyptus, which penetrate and break down plaque.
Alcohol in mouthwashes causes excessive mouth dryness, which leads to tongue discoloration and bad breath. Worse, it greatly decreases the population of bacteria living in your mouth. This causes an overgrowth of yeasts on your tongue, which in turn interferes with the normal shedding and growth of the papillae.
Breathing through the Mouth
There are a number of reasons people breathe through their mouth. They may do it out of habit, or the thin wall between their nostrils (septum) might be dislocated. However, the main culprit is an obstructed airway passage.
During normal respiration, the air you take in becomes warm and moist before it reaches our lungs. When you breathe through the mouth, you’re introducing dry and cool air that cause excessive dryness of the mouth, which allows bacteria to grow on your tongue and lead to tongue discoloration.
A Symptom of Different Diseases
A yellow tongue could be due to liver disease, HIV infection, fever, and jaundice. For ancient healing practitioners, a yellow-coated tongue indicates that you have digestive problems due to an imbalance in bile secretion or gallstones in the gallbladder or liver.
Rarely is yellow tongue due to jaundice, which happens when there are high levels of yellow pigments in the bile called bilirubin and low amounts of new red blood cells. The symptoms of jaundice are usually first seen on the tongue, which could turn pale and yellowish.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, a healthy tongue is pinkish with a thin white coating. If a person has a yellowish tongue, it could suggest that the person is suffering from possible digestive or metabolic problems involving the spleen or stomach.
Our tongue has a protective layer of dead cells called keratin, which is the same material that forms our fingernails. The amount of keratin shed is usually equal to the amount produced. However, certain factors (eating rough foods, drinking hot beverages, or smoking) could irritate the tongue that disrupt this balance, which could lead to a condition called “coated tongue.”
When there’s a chronic irritation—let’s say due to a chewing tobacco—the tongue increases the production of keratin. This will start to build up on the taste buds, especially along the middle of the tongue, which gives the hairy appearance. These hair-like structures will collect tobacco pigments, food, bacteria, and other organisms that could cause black, blue, green, brown, or yellow tongue discoloration.
Most of the time, we perform our daily activities without knowing that we’re dehydrated. A reliable sign of mild dehydration is low urine output and frequency, especially in the morning. Other usual symptoms are low energy, hunger, mild headache, and feeling hot. During moderate dehydration, we could experience mouth dryness and tongue discoloration (yellow or white). 
What Causes Yellow Under Tongue
According to FreeMD, there could be 58 causes of yellow under tongue. Some of the common causes include alcoholic hepatitis, biliary colic, viral hepatitis, hepatitis A and B, mononucleosis, gallstones, gallbladder disease, Epstein Barr infection etc. Not so common conditions include sickle cell anemia, hepatomegaly, jaundice in babies and kids, and cirrhosis. You can read other 40 rare diseases here.
Additionally, small yellow sores or bumps under the tongue can indicate canker sores while a lump could indicate oral cancer or swollen salivary glands or stones.
Yellow Tongue in Babies
Yellow tongue in babies can be caused by a number of conditions such as oral thrush, canker sores, and acid reflux. Canker sores are generally painful and the baby maynot be able to breastfeed and experience white or yellow ulcerative spots in the mouth.
Babies can also develop black hairy or furry tongue which can lead to bad breath, burning or itchy sensation.
Oral thrush (oral candidiasis) is the most common cause of white or light yellowish tongue. Candida is a normal organism in your mouth, but sometimes it can overgrow and cause symptoms. When candidaalbicans, a fungi that lies in your mouth lining overgrows, it can cause a white lesion or yellowish discoloration on your tongue, roof of your mouth, gums, inner cheeks, tonsils, or the back of your throat. This yellow film often brushes off and might cause a slight bleeding when you attempt to scrape it off.
Oral thrush is common condition in infants as well as elderly people. However, it can affect anyone. The symptoms usually include redness, soreness, burning sensation, inability to taste, cottony mouth feeling, and cheese like bumps.
Oral thrush is generally a minor problem if you’re healthy. However, if you have a weakened immune system, symptoms of oral thrush may be more difficult to control. If you or your infant develop sore and white/yellowish lesions inside the mouth, go to the doctor or dentist.
How to Treat a Yellow Tongue
Maintain Proper Tongue Hygiene
The first thing you could do is to brush your tongue using a toothbrush with a tongue cleaner whenever you brush your teeth. You can dip your toothbrush in a cleaning solution with 8 ounces of water and 2 ounces of hydrogen peroxide.  Finish off by swishing with plain water several times.
Other Tongue Cleaning Tips:
- Never clean your tongue using the front portion of your toothbrush (the part with bristles) to avoid irritating further your taste buds.
- Toothbrushes versus tongue scrapers: which is better? Both are good in removing tongue residue. However, tongue scrapers are better at removing sulfur compounds that cause bad breath.  If you don’t have a tongue scraper at home, you can use a teaspoon to scrape your tongue from back to front. Repeat this procedure until your tongue looks and feels clean.
- Including more high-fiber foods, such as fruits and veggies, in your diet will also help clean your tongue effectively.
Use an Alcohol-Free Mouthwash
Why gargle with alcohol-free mouthwash?
Alcohol-free mouthwashes are perfect for people suffering from mouth irritations (burning mouth syndrome and black hairy tongue), diabetes, and systemic illnesses. Since they’re free from alcohol, they’re least likely to cause excessive mouth dryness (xerostomia), which leads to increased bacterial growth that could cause tooth decay and tongue discoloration.
Examples of alcohol-free commercial mouthwashes:
- Nature’s Answer
- Listerine Zero
- Oral-B Sensitive
- Colgate Total Advanced Pro-Shield
Quit Smoking (If You Smoke)
Of course, don’t go cold turkey. Have a solid plan in place to make sure you successfully quit smoking. A good plan covers the short-term and long-term difficulties of quitting smoking, including what you can do to prevent any relapse.
Interestingly, there’s a mouthwash that helps you enhance your oral health and cut down smoking, or even quit smoking altogether. This mouthwash for smokers and non-smokers is Nicorinse, which you could use for eliminating nicotine and other cigarette chemicals left inside your mouth. The great thing about Nicorinse is it doesn’t contain any alcohol, so you can avoid excessive mouth dryness and other irritations.
Drink Adequate Amounts of Fluids Daily
The most logical step to preventing or treating mild cases of dehydration is to replace lost fluids. Keep yourself constantly hydrated, especially if you engage in strenuous activities, live in a warm environment or high altitudes [8 000 feet (2,500 meters) and above], or after drinking dehydrating beverages.
If you have an inactive lifestyle and live in a cool environment, you could drink at least 8 glasses of fluids daily. However, if you have an active lifestyle or live somewhere with a hot environment, try drinking 16 ounces of fluids for each pound you shed. Avoid foods and drinks that are dehydrating, such as coffee and teas.
Call Your Doctor If…
If your yellow tongue doesn’t disappear after more than a week, contact your dentist or primary care doctor. You may be suffering from certain health conditions, like a yeast infection. In that case, your doctor may prescribe oral and topical antifungal drugs.
At home, combine fresh garlic (crushed) and pure honey. Chew several times a day. Study shows garlic contains a potent antifungal component called ajoene. 
Alternatively, you could swish propolis-based mouthwash, like BeeVital, three to five times a day. Propolis promotes healing and combats infections caused by fungi and bacteria.  Don’t use propolis-based mouthwashes if you have known hypersensitivity reactions to bee stings and bee products.
A yellow tongue is usually not an emergency medical case. You can go to your dentist or a doctor if the appearance really bothers you or if it doesn’t go away after a week of home treatments. In the case of people with black hairy tongue, doctors may cut off their taste buds using laser or electrosurgery (high-frequency electricity). However, doctors perform surgical procedures as a last resort.
Have you ever experienced yellowish tongue discoloration? How were you able to get rid of it? I’d love to hear your thoughts and treatments!