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What Is Black Tongue?

By Dominique Brooks ; Updated August 14, 2017

Black tongue is a harmless, temporary condition. Some medications and lifestyle factors can increase the risk of developing the condition. However, since it is a temporary condition, no medical interventions are typically needed. A person with black tongue can make some changes in behavior, like improved oral hygiene or modifying or stopping the use of tobacco, to manage the condition.


Black tongue, which is also called black hairy tongue, is a condition in which a black stain appears on the top surface of the tongue. Black tongue is not cancerous and does not cause any health issues, according to the MayoClinic.com. The condition occurs when the projections on the tongue, called papillae, do not shed but continue to grow longer. These papillae look black because of debris, fungi or bacteria that may collect on the tongue. Occasionally the tongue will look yellow or brown instead.


Some causes of black tongue include bacterial or fungal overgrowth after antibiotic therapy, poor oral hygiene and mouth breathing. A person who uses medications that contain bismuth, like Pepto-Bismol, can develop black tongue as well. Heavy smokers may develop these changes over time. Strong mouthwashes containing peroxide can also cause the condition. In some cases, the cause of the black tongue is not known.


The main symptom of black tongue is the black or brown discoloration of the tongue. Patients may also notice a bad taste and dryness in the mouth. Others may notice a metallic taste in the mouth as well as bad breath, or halitosis, according to the MayoClinic.com.


The treatments for black tongue do not involve prescription medications. According to the Atlanta Dental Group, one tactic is to address the cause of the problem, like tobacco use or poor oral hygiene. Using a tongue scraper and brushing the teeth regularly can reduce the problem. Eating a healthy and balanced diet and taking a multivitamin is also a part of the treatment.


According to MayoClinic.com, a patient with black tongue should contact a physician if the condition becomes bothersome or if it lasts for more than 10 days. In rare cases, black discoloration of the tongue may be an early sign of HIV, according to the Atlanta Dental Group.

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