Causes of Tongue Discoloration

The tongue is a group of strong muscles which are important part for chewing and the breakdown of food. The muscles are surrounded by a mucous membrane that contains small bumps called papillae. Normally, the tongue and the papillae are pinkish red in color. Color changes of the tongue can occur as a result of a number of conditions that cause changes in the structure or the papillae.

Doctor examining patient. Credit: Design Pics/Design Pics/Getty Images


Leukoplakia is a precancerous lesion that develops on the mucus membranes of the tongue and the inside of the cheeks as a result of chronic irritation from rough teeth, tobacco use and ill-fitting dentures. Leukoplakia is characterized by the development of fuzzy white patches that cover the tongue and the cheeks. The patches may also be thick and hard to the touch, notes MedlinePlus. Because leukoplakia can develop into cancer, it is important to get rid of the source of irritation that is causing the patches. Usually, removing the source of irritation will cause the leukoplakia to go away on its own. If this is ineffective, the lesions may require surgical removal.

Black Hairy Tongue

The papillae on the tongue regularly grow and shed as part of a normal body process. Black hairy tongue is a condition that occurs when the papillae grow, but they do not shed. The long papillae give the tongue a hairy look. Bacteria and particles from the air can collect on these long papillae, which causes a dark brown or black color on the tongue. In addition to tongue discoloration, other symptoms of black hairy tongue include a metallic taste in the mouth, bad breath and gagging. notes that possible causes of black hairy tongue include antibiotics, poor oral hygiene, medications, chronic breathing through the mouth, some mouthwashes and tobacco use. Black hairy tongue usually goes away without any medical intervention.


Glossitis is a condition in which the tongue becomes inflamed and changes color. The condition also causes the loss of papillae, which causes the tongue to have a smooth, shiny appearance. Soreness, tenderness and difficulty chewing may also occur as a result of the inflammation. Possible causes of glossitis include infections, direct injury, allergic reactions, exposure to chemical irritants, nutritional deficiencies and some medications. Depending on the cause of glossitis, the change in tongue color can range from extremely pale to dark red. The goal of treatment for glossitis is to remove the source of inflammation, says the University of Maryland Medical Center. If the condition is caused by infections, antibiotics may be helpful. Nutritional supplementation and diet changes can help cure glossitis caused by nutritional deficiencies.

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