What Is Black Tongue?

Black tongue (or black hairy tongue) is a harmless (benign) condition. Even though the name sounds scary, the condition is not usually a cause for worry. A black tongue can happen for several reasons, including poor dental hygiene. The treatment for the condition is usually simple.

Here's what you need to know about what causes black tongue, what to do if you have the condition, and when you should see your doctor or dentist.

Doctor doing a medical check-up on a woman's tongue and throat

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What Causes a Black Tongue? 

Black tongue is more common in older people but can happen at any age. The condition might be more common in men than women, however, the condition is more strongly linked to the smoking status and oral hygiene habits of an individual.

Black tongue is often related to poor dental hygiene, but there are also other risk factors including:

  • Drinking a lot of coffee or tea
  • Tobacco use
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Certain medications
  • Some mouthwashes
  • Dehydration
  • Intravenous drug use
  • Cancer
  • Trigeminal neuralgia
  • Compromised immune system
  • Radiation therapy
  • Dry mouth

Certain medications are associated with black tongue including:

Symptoms

Although the name for the condition implies that the tongue turns black, the discoloration can also be brown, white, or yellow. The discoloration is typically focused on the center of the tongue.

Some people do not experience other symptoms. However, other symptoms that may occur with black tongue include:

  • Bad breath
  • Change in the way food tastes
  • Burning sensation
  • Gagging sensation
  • Tickling sensation
  • Nausea

When To See Your Doctor or Dentist

Black tongue is usually easy to treat at home, but discoloration in the mouth can sometimes be a symptom of more serious conditions.

If you have discoloration on your tongue, make an appointment with your doctor. You might also need to see your dentist.

Diagnosis

Doctors and dentists can usually diagnose black tongue just by looking at your mouth. If there’s any doubt about the diagnosis, your doctor may want to do more tests. For example, perform a biopsy to rule out cancer.

Other tests that might be needed include:

  • Bacterial culture swabs
  • Fungal scrapings

Other Conditions

There are a few other conditions that can look similar to black tongue, including:

Treatment 

You can prevent black tongue by maintaining good oral hygiene. Scraping or brushing the tongue can prevent food and bacteria from getting stuck on the tongue’s surface. When possible, try to avoid things like substances or medications that are known to cause black tongue.

For example, if a medication that you take is the cause of black tongue, your doctor might suggest changing to a different prescription.

Likewise, if the tongue discoloration is related to something you frequently eat or drink, dietary changes—like cutting out or limiting your intake of alcohol, coffee, or tea—can also help.

If you see your dentist about black tongue, they might suggest that you stop using mouthwashes that contain peroxide. Switching formulas may help prevent a recurrence of black tongue. 

Sometimes, avoiding these things or making changes might not help the black tongue go away. If this is the case, your doctor may prescribe an antifungal medication or retinoid. In rare cases, laser surgery is required to treat the condition. 

A Word From Verywell

Black tongue is not a serious condition, but it can be distressing. Even if the only symptom that you have is a change in your tongue’s appearance, you might feel embarrassed about it.

If you have discoloration on your tongue, talk to your doctor or dentist. They can usually diagnose the condition easily and help you find the best treatment.

FAQs

Do Listerine and other mouthwashes cause black tongue? 

Mouthwashes that contain peroxide or chlorhexidine may cause black tongue. If you’ve recently developed black tongue after trying a new mouthwash, switching to a mouthwash that does not contain these ingredients may prevent a recurrence.

Are black spots on the tongue a sign of a more serious condition? 

It’s possible. Black spots on the tongue can be a sign of cancer. However, tongue cancer is more likely to show up as a lesion or scab that does not heal. Your doctor can perform a biopsy to make a diagnosis.

How can you remove black spots from your tongue?

Scraping or brushing the tongue is usually the first suggestion for treating black tongue. If that does not work, your doctor may suggest medication. In rare, serious cases, surgery is needed.

Does Pepto-Bismol (bismuth subsalicylate) get rid of black tongue?

It may cause it. Pepto-Bismol can temporarily turn your tongue black because it contains bismuth. When you stop taking it, your tongue should regain its normal appearance.

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6 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.
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