Black hairy tongue. The name alone is fairly awful, and the condition it describes, at least visually, lives up to the name. But what, exactly, is black hairy tongue?

Projecting from the tip, sides, and top of your tongue are lingual papillae. These papillae have taste buds at their tip, enabling you to experience all five known tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Typically flesh-colored, lingual papillae are essentially unnoticeable under nearly all circumstances.

Just like all cells in your body, papillae are designed to grow, serve their function, and die off to allow new growth. Lingual papillae shed once their purpose has been served but, just like cells elsewhere in the body, they do not always do what they’re supposed to do. When lingual papillae continue to grow, they can reach 15x their normal size, producing the look of hair on the tongue.


It is the papillae that comprise the “hairy” part of black hairy tongue. But what makes them change color?

  • Food
  • Drinks
  • Bacteria
  • Yeast

Black hairy tongue is somewhat of a misnomer: sometimes the color changes caused by foods and beverages, bacterial growth and yeast overpopulation are more greenish or yellow in color. Other colors, such as brown, red, and even purple are not impossible, but any lasting change in the color and texture of the papillae will fall under the same black hairy tongue umbrella.

Highly visible, black hairy tongue can result in issues with self-esteem and confidence. And it can last for months or even years. Accompanying the unsettling appearance of a discolored tongue, this condition may also result in:

  • Chronic bad breath
  • Glossopyrosis (burning sensation)
  • Gagging
  • A metallic taste in the mouth
  • Frequent nausea
  • A tickling sensation in the mouth

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms or if your tongue has taken on a new and unsettling color, please call DeWitt Dental Associates at 303-321-5656 to schedule a consultation today. Located in Cherry Creek, we serve all surrounding Metro Denver communities.

How is Black Hairy Tongue Treated?

Black hairy tongue is almost entirely caused by lifestyle choices. While more common in men, some of the leading causes of this embarrassing condition are:

  • Tobacco use
  • A poor oral hygiene routine
  • Dehydration
  • Excessive consumption of coffee or tea
  • Excessive consumption of red wine
  • Using medications containing bismuth
  • Using a mouthwash containing peroxide, witch hazel, or menthol

Using a mouthwash with peroxide, witch hazel, menthol, or alcohol can also damage the bonding that holds restorations, such as one-day-dental-crowns, in place. If you are a fan of mouthwash, it is a good idea to discuss which type is best for your oral hygiene needs with one of the experienced dentists at our Cherry Creek office. We can help guide you to the mouthwash that will be the most beneficial and the least harmful to your overall oral health.

In addition to lifestyle choices, black hairy tongue may be linked to:

  • Being HIV positive
  • Antibiotic use
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chronic dry mouth

When black hairy tongue is linked to these issues, there may not be much that can be done about it. However, improving your daily oral care can go a long way in reducing the problem.

If you are suffering from black hairy tongue, we can help you determine some of the root causes during your next visit. Once identified, we can begin to work on changing behaviors that may be contributing to your condition.

Can Black Hairy Tongue be Treated?

The best defense against black hairy tongue is a healthy oral hygiene routine. This should include:

  • Brushing your teeth with a soft-bristled toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste after every meal and snack
  • Flossing both morning and night
  • Visiting our Cherry Creek office every six months for cleanings and examinations

Routine cleanings and examinations are one of the most effective ways to treat black hairy tongue as well. However, a thorough removal of yeast, bacteria, and discoloration may require more than at-home and professional cleanings.

You can help reduce your risks of developing black hairy tongue by drinking plenty of water throughout the day and by watching those habits that contribute to tongue discoloration.

If you smoke, quit immediately. There is literally nothing good that can come from that habit. Smoking increases risks for oral cancer 6x over. It also increases risks for gum disease, tooth decay, irreversible tooth discoloration, and persistently stubborn halitosis. April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month and a great time to consider quitting this useless and dangerous habit.

If you drink a lot of dark beverages, consider reducing your intake or drinking through a straw. Drinking dark beverages through a straw can also help reduce the risks acidic beverages pose to tooth enamel and may be an effective measure against severe tooth staining.

There is some evidence that eating a diet high in roughage is good for scraping bacteria and stain from the papillae. A diet high in roughage is likely high in many other nutrients as well and will serve to strengthen the entire body including the teeth and gums if maintained.

A tongue scraper may also be a good idea if you struggle with black hairy tongue. This ancient Ayurvedic practice can gently remove debris from the top of the tongue and has even been shown to reduce volatile sulfur compounds in the mouth, which can help reduce halitosis. Tongue scrapers can be found in most grocery and drug stores.

If you have black hairy tongue, we can discuss all possible methods of dealing with it during your next visit to our office.

Is Black Hairy Tongue a Dental Emergency?

Because it poses no threat to the health of your teeth and gums, black hairy tongue is not a dental emergency, but it can be terribly embarrassing. We will make every effort to get you in as soon as possible when you call our office with this condition. If it is noticed during your routine examinations, we can discuss treatment during regularly scheduled visits as well.

To learn how our Cherry Creek dentists can help with black hairy tongue and other oral health and beauty concerns, call 303-321-5656 and schedule an appointment today.