Hairy Tongue

All of us have tiny hair-like structures on our tongues. These are not the same as hairs on your head—even though they share similar properties.

The cone-like hairs on your tongue are called filiform papillae, and they are usually only about 1 millimeter long. In about 13% of the population, though, these "hairs" grow longer and darker.

This article will explain why these hair-like structures grow on our tongues, what they do, and what can make them become more noticeable.

Woman gets a tongue exam

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Symptoms

The hair-like structures on your tongue, called filiform papillae, are tiny conical projections with brush-like pieces on the ends that usually only grow to about 1 millimeter in length. Your tongue has lots of these, and they help your tongue stay clean and grip food.

In some people, keratin—the same substance the hair on your head is made of—builds up on the surface of these tongue hairs, giving them a longer appearance. In some cases, the "hairs" on your tongue can grow up to 18 millimeters long and 2 millimeters wide.

When these filiform papillae become long, they often take on a black or dark appearance. They can also appear brown, white, green, blue, or pink depending on what you have been drinking or eating.

A hairy tongue can be somewhat painful, with a stinging or burning sensation on the surface of your tongue. Hairy tongue can also cause bad breath, or halitosis.

Causes of a Hairy Tongue

Your tongue can take on a hairy appearance for a number of reasons, including:

  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Radiation treatments
  • Dehydration or a dry mouth
  • Excessive coffee or tea consumption
  • Tobacco use
  • Lack of stimulation or abrasion on the tongue, usually from soft food diets
  • Certain medications

What Medications Can Cause a Hairy Tongue?

Several types of medication can cause a hairy tongue, primarily because of the way these medications affect the natural balance of bacteria and other substances in your mouth.

Antibiotics are one of the main types of medication that can increase the appearance of these hair-like structures. This can be for several reasons, including a change in the biome of your mouth, as well as dry mouth.

Medications that are known to cause hairy tongue in some people include:

Not everyone who takes these medications will develop a hairy tongue.

Are There Tests to Diagnose the Cause of a Hairy Tongue?

In most cases, your doctor or dentist will be able to diagnose this condition simply by looking at your tongue. If bacteria or yeasts are believed to be making the problem worse, your doctor may take a scraping of the buildup on your tongue for testing. This can help identify which bacteria and/or yeasts are colonized on your tongue, and treatments can be tailored to these specific organisms.

How to Treat a Hairy Tongue

In most cases, a thorough cleaning of your mouth and tongue, followed by good, regular oral hygiene, can resolve a hairy tongue. For cases in which medications played a role in the appearance of these hair-like structures, they might not go away until you have stopped using that particular medication.

Complications and Risk Factors Associated With a Hairy Tongue

Hairy tongue is rarely a serious condition and can often be resolved with good oral hygiene and medication changes (if a person is taking a medication that's causing their hairy tongue). People who take certain medications are more prone to developing this condition, but it can develop in anyone with poor oral hygiene and an overgrowth of yeasts or bacteria. Those who are on soft diets may also be more likely to develop hairy tongue due to a lack of abrasion and scraping from solid foods.

For cases in which bacteria or yeasts grow out of control with hairy tongue, systemic infections are possible. Bacteria and yeast that enter the bloodstream can cause severe infection and must be treated by a doctor.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

It's important to see your primary care provider for regular preventive care. If you are taking certain medications like antibiotics or undergoing treatments like chemotherapy, you should already be working with a doctor with whom you can follow up if you develop a hairy tongue.

Be sure to seek immediate medical care if you have any symptoms in your mouth that make swallowing or breathing extremely difficult.

Summary

Hairy tongue is a condition that can result from poor oral care and certain medications. Medication changes (only if advised by your doctor) and cleaning your mouth well can usually resolve the problem. Talk to your doctor if this isn't the case.

A Word From Verywell

A hairy tongue is not something you see every day, but it's not entirely uncommon either. When this condition develops, it's usually because of a medication you're taking or a buildup of food, bacteria, yeast, and/or other debris.

Cleaning your mouth and tongue thoroughly can usually get rid of the appearance of these hair-like structures, but you might also need to make some medication changes if your doctor advises them. Always talk to your doctor before changing or stopping any of your regular medications.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What makes hair-like structures grow on your tongue?

    What looks like hair is actually a lengthening of tiny structures on your tongue that help it grip food and clean itself. These "hairs" can grow if you eat a lot of soft foods, take certain medications, or have poor oral healthcare.

  • How is hairy tongue treated?

    A good cleaning of your mouth and tongue is usually enough to clear up this condition. You may also have to review any medications you are taking and, if your doctor advises it, stop or switch medications. Don't stop or change any medications without talking to your doctor first.

  • Can hairy tongue be cured?

    You can get rid of a hairy tongue with some hygiene and lifestyle changes, but not keeping up with these changes can make this condition return. You may also have a condition that raises your risk of developing hairy tongue. Talk to your doctor or dentist about what might be causing your hairy tongue and what you can do to prevent its return.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Oral Medicine. Hairy tongue.

  2. Ren J, et al. Antibiotic-induced black hairy tongue: two case reports and a review of the literature. Jour Int Med Res. October 2020;48(10). doi:10.1177/0300060520961279.

  3. Brigham and Women's Hospital. Coated/hairy tongue.

By Rachael Zimlich, BSN, RN
 Rachael is a freelance healthcare writer and critical care nurse based near Cleveland, Ohio.