Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Oral Care

Select An Article
Font Size

Black Hairy Tongue

The name black hairy tongue may sound scary, but the condition is harmless. Black hairy tongue is caused by bacteria or fungi in the mouth, which make the tongue appear black and hairy. It's easily remedied by good old-fashioned oral hygiene.

What Causes Black Hairy Tongue?

A black hairy tongue is caused by too much bacteria or yeast growth in the mouth. The bacteria build up on tiny rounded projections called papillae. These lie along the surface of the tongue. Instead of shedding as they normally do, the papillae start to grow and lengthen, creating hair-like projections. They can grow to 15 times their normal length.

Normally, the papillae are pinkish-white. But as they grow, pigments from food, drinks, and possibly the bacteria or yeast themselves get caught in the papillae, dyeing the tongue a color. Most often that color is black, hence the name. But the tongue can also turn brown, yellow, green, or a variety of other colors.

Certain lifestyle habits and conditions can make people more likely to develop black hairy tongue. They include:

  • poor oral hygiene
  • smoking tobacco
  • drinking a lot of coffee or tea
  • using antibiotics (which may disrupt the normal balance of bacteria in the mouth)
  • being dehydrated
  • taking medications that contain the chemical bismuth (such as Pepto-Bismol for upset stomach)
  • not producing enough saliva
  • regularly using mouthwash that contains peroxide, witch hazel, or menthol
  • getting radiation therapy to the head and neck

Black hairy tongue is more common in men, people who use intravenous drugs, and those who are HIV-positive.

What Are the Symptoms of Black Hairy Tongue?

Other than the appearance of the tongue, most people with black hairy tongue don't have any symptoms or feel any discomfort. The exception is when there is too much growth of the yeast Candida albicans, which can cause a burning sensation on the tongue. This burning sensation is called glossopyrosis.

Some people complain of a tickling feeling in the back of the roof of the mouth, a metallic taste in their mouth, or nausea. In more severe cases, the condition may lead to a gagging feeling. Sometimes, food getting caught inside the extra-long papillae can cause bad breath.

How Is Black Hairy Tongue Treated?

Practicing good oral hygiene is the best way to treat black hairy tongue. Gently brush your teeth twice a day with a soft toothbrush. Also, brush your tongue. You can use a tongue scraper to make sure you're thoroughly cleaning the area. Drink plenty of water throughout the day to help keep your mouth clean.

Other tips include:

  • If you smoke, quit.
  • Add more roughage to your diet. Soft foods won't clean off the tongue effectively.

Call your doctor or dentist if the problem doesn't get better on its own. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics or an antifungal drug to get rid of the bacteria or yeast. Topical medications, such as tretinoin (Retin-A), are also sometimes prescribed. As a last resort, if the problem doesn't improve, the papillae can be surgically clipped off with a laser or electrosurgery.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Steve Drescher, DDS on April 14, 2013
Next Article:

How Do I Measure Up? Get the Facts Fast!

Number of Days Per Week I Floss

Get the latest Oral Health newsletter delivered to your inbox!


or
Answer:
Never
(0)
Good
(1-3)
Better
(4-6)
Best
(7)

You are currently

Only 18.5% of Americans never floss. You are missing out on a simple way to make a big difference in the health of your mouth. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Floss removes food trapped between the teeth and removes the film of bacteria that forms there before it turns to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Try flossing just one tooth to get started.

You are one of 31% of Americans who don't floss daily. You are missing out on a simple way to make a big difference in the health of your mouth. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Aim for 3 more days!

You are one of 31% of Americans who don't floss daily, but you're well on your way to making a positive impact on your teeth and gums. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Aim for all 7 days!

Only 50.5% of Americans floss daily, and good for you that you are one of them! Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Congratulations on your good oral health habit!

SOURCES:

American Dental Association, Healthy People 2010

This tool is intended only for adults 18 and older.

Start Over

Step:  of 

Today on WebMD

close up of woman sticking out tongue
Sores, discoloration, bumps and more.
toothbrushes
10 secrets to a brighter smile.
 
Veneer smile
Before and after.
Woman checking her bite in mirror
Why dental care is important.
 

Woman dissatisfied with granola bar
Slideshow
woman with jaw pain
Quiz
 
eroded front teeth
Slideshow
brushing teeth
Video
 

Variety shades of tea
Slideshow
mouth and dental instruments
Article
 
Closeup of a happy young guy brushing his teeth
Tool
womans smile
Video