What is Yellow Tongue?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Yellow tongue is a usually benign condition which occurs when bacteria in the mouth produce pigments which cause the tongue to develop a yellow coating. A yellow coated tongue may look slightly alarming, but it does not indicate the presence of a major medical problem except in very rare cases. There are several ways to address a yellow tongue, including improving oral hygiene, using medications to cut down on the bacteria in the mouth, or making diet and lifestyle changes.

Yellow tongue can easily be removed with a tongue scraper.
Yellow tongue can easily be removed with a tongue scraper.

People usually develop a yellow tongue when their tastebuds become swollen, creating a rough surface which allows bacteria to adhere and build up pigment. Some common yellow tongue causes include: poor oral hygiene, certain medications, fever, dehydration, and mouth breathing. In addition to being coated in yellowish material, the tongue may look or feel hairy and bumpy.

A person with yellow tongue.
A person with yellow tongue.

Immediate treatment of yellow tongue can be as simple as brushing the tongue with a toothbrush or using a tongue scraper. Some people like to brush their tongues with a small amount of hydrogen peroxide to bring up the bacteria and remove the pigment, although this is not necessary. People who know that they are sick with a fever or cold which is causing them to breathe through their mouths may opt to wait out the yellow tongue, as it should resolve once the mild illness goes away.

People who smoke or drink coffee may have to modify those habits if they develop yellow tongue.
People who smoke or drink coffee may have to modify those habits if they develop yellow tongue.

Individuals who smoke or consume lots of tea or coffee may want to moderate their diets if they are bothered by yellow tongue. If there is no apparent reason for yellow tongue, the patient should visit a doctor to have a culture taken to determine which organisms are present. Candida sometimes colonizes the mouth and causes a yellowish or white coating to appear, for example. It can be eliminated with medication, however.

Brushing the tongue with a hydrogen peroxide solution can help treat yellow tongue.
Brushing the tongue with a hydrogen peroxide solution can help treat yellow tongue.

Certain medical problems such as infection with HIV and liver disease can sometimes cause the tongue to develop a yellow coating. Usually yellow tongue appears long after patients have been diagnosed. People who develop yellowish tongues for no apparent reason should visit a doctor if the symptoms don't resolve themselves within several days.

In traditional Chinese medicine, yellow tongue is considered to be a symptom of damp heat. In tongue diagnosis, a practitioner examines the tongue to learn more about the internal systems of the body. If the tongue is yellowish, it suggests that the patient has a yang deficiency, an excess of damp heat in the body, and possibly spleen or stomach problems.

Medicated breath sprays can help with yellow tongue.
Medicated breath sprays can help with yellow tongue.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I was terrified at first, but I smoke a lot of tobacco and have not been brushing lately.


I started drinking green smoothies to improve my diet and my yellow tongue went away in a couple days.


Yellow tongue could also be due to stomach/digestive issues related to diet, overall health and stress. Maybe try to drink more water and detoxify somewhat. You may notice your tongue go worse, but stick to it for a few days.


I am tired of sites saying yellow tongue is a sign of HIV. It is not. Look it up on NHS.

I have a yellow tongue and not due to HIV as I am HIV negative and have been dealing with a problem down south (skin irritation).

I am no doctor, of course. I went to see my doctor last week, and he said my problem down south could be an STD. I said I doubted it because I have not had unprotected sex, all my partners were clean and this last one was definitely clean.

I smoke and drink way too much coffee, and have been drinking my coffee black as well, so as a result I caused myself to get inflamed papillae (If that is how you spell it).

I need to get my self a tongue brush/scraper. I have been so stressed over this today. About an hour ago I reached back with my index finger and felt they were quite swollen.


I don't smoke or drink tea or coffee, but I drink about one glass of water a day so I'm guessing I have yellow tongue from dehydration, despite not actually feeling dehydrated. My tongue is only yellow/white at the back and other than that is red.


I have no major medical problems and rarely drink coffee but do like green tea after dinner. Does tea cause yellow tongue? I brush my tongue as much as I can especially when it looks discolored like tonight after having dinner at Maggiano's (and chocolate martini). I very seldom have alcoholic drinks so I'm not going to blame it on the martini. What kind of food might be a source of Candida?


@Snoopy, You can buy tongue brushers from Amazon. I've got one and it helps a bit, but makes me gag.

I've got the same problem. I assume it's because I smoke and drink loads of tea and coffee.


I have been a smoker for about 10 years now and have started to notice this discoloration on my tongue. I avoid the dentist because I’m tired of hearing how much my habit is going to lead to dentures as I get older.

Is a tongue scraper something you can buy at a store or does my dentist have to do it for me with some kind of equipment?


While most of the time yellow tongue is minor problem, sometimes it can indicate more severe problems like tetanus, typhoid fever, and anaphylaxis.

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