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Black hairy tongue

Black hairy tongue is a temporary, harmless oral condition that gives your tongue a dark, furry appearance. The distinct look of black hairy tongue usually results from a buildup of dead skin cells on the numerous tiny projections (papillae) on the surface of your tongue that contain taste buds. These papillae, which are longer than normal, can easily trap and be stained by tobacco, food or other substances, and bacteria or yeast.

Although black hairy tongue may look alarming, typically it doesn't cause any health problems and is usually painless. Black hairy tongue usually resolves without medical treatment.

Symptoms Causes

Signs and symptoms of black hairy tongue include:

  • Black discoloration of the tongue, although the color may be brown, tan, green, yellow or white
  • A hairy or furry appearance of the tongue
  • Altered taste or metallic taste in mouth
  • Bad breath (halitosis)
  • Gagging or tickling sensation, if the overgrowth of the papillae is excessive

When to see a doctor

Though unattractive, black hairy tongue is usually a temporary, harmless condition.

See your doctor if:

  • You're concerned about the appearance of your tongue
  • Black hairy tongue persists despite brushing your teeth and tongue twice daily

Black hairy tongue typically results when projections on the tongue called papillae grow longer and don't shed like normal. This makes the tongue look hairy. Debris, bacteria or other organisms can collect on the papillae and result in discoloration.

The cause of black hairy tongue can't always be determined. However, potential causes include:

  • Changes in the normal bacteria or yeast content of the mouth following antibiotic use
  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Dry mouth (xerostomia)
  • Medications containing bismuth, such as Pepto-Bismol
  • Regular use of mouthwashes containing oxidizing agents, such as peroxide, or astringent agents, such as witch hazel or menthol
  • Tobacco use
  • Irritation due to drinking hot beverages, such as coffee or tea
  • Eating a soft diet that does not help to rub dead skin cells from your tongue
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