Yellow Tongue

Yellow tongue is usually a harmless symptom caused by bacteria buildup. The yellow tongue can also result from certain lifestyle habits or underlying health issues. Rarely, jaundice, or yellowing of the skin and eyes, can include yellow tongue. Yellow tongue can also be a phase before a condition called black hairy tongue. If a yellow tongue doesn't disappear with lifestyle changes or better oral hygiene, it might help to see a healthcare professional, especially if there are other concerning symptoms present.

This article discusses the symptoms of yellow tongue, its causes and risks, and diagnosing and treating the condition.

Woman drinking coffee

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Symptoms of Yellow Tongue

Yellow tongue can vary in appearance and include some other symptoms. A yellow tongue might look like:

  • A thin, almost transparent yellow or off-white layer that is either dry or greasy
  • A thick layer of yellow or off-white film that is either dry or greasy
  • Yellow film that appears patchy or on half of the tongue
  • A bright yellow film that looks brown or almost black in some areas ("hairy" tongue)

Other symptoms that might be present include:

  • Low saliva in the mouth
  • Feeling thirsty or dehydrated often

Causes of Yellow Tongue

Yellow tongue is the result of bacteria that gathers on the tongue. This can result from habits like:

  • Low oral hygiene: Not brushing and flossing teeth regularly can cause bacteria buildup in the mouth and yellow tongue. Using a tongue scraper can also help prevent yellow tongue.
  • Drinking coffee, alcohol, or heavy teas: Recent studies have found that coffee, heavy black tea, and alcohol can all increase the chances of hairy tongue, a condition in which the tongue changes color because of bacteria.
  • Smoking: Heavy tobacco use can increase the chances of color changes in the tongue.
  • Drug use: Some drugs can also cause yellow tongue.

Additionally, certain underlying health issues can cause yellow tongue, including:

  • COVID-19: Infections like COVID-19 and the medications that treat them can alter the body's balance of bacteria and ability to create saliva in the mouth. This can cause yellowing of the tongue.
  • Diabetes: Different types of diabetes can cause yellow tongue because bacteria on the tongue feed on sugar.
  • Pancreatic cancer: The pancreas releases digestive juices and hormones that control blood sugar. Issues with the pancreas can cause jaundice, which is the yellowing of the skin.
  • Jaundice: In rare cases, jaundice can cause a yellow tongue. Jaundice can indicate liver damage or pancreas issues, infection, a blood disorder, or other issues.

What Medications Can Cause Yellow Tongue?

Studies have found that some medications could change the color of the tongue, including:

  • Antibiotics like penicillin or doxycycline, which change the balance of bacteria in the body
  • Antipsychotics that cause dry mouth
  • Cancer treatments, which can cause bacteria buildup in the mouth and other oral health issues

How to Treat Yellow Tongue

Usually, improving or adding to oral hygiene can resolve yellow tongue, including:

  • Brushing the tongue with one part hydrogen peroxide and five parts water and rinsing with water once a day
  • Brushing and flossing twice daily
  • Using a tongue scraper or brushing the tongue

Lifestyle changes that can reduce or eliminate yellow tongue might include:

  • Consuming more raw vegetables and fruits, so their texture interacts with the tongue
  • Increasing fluid intake to increase saliva in the mouth
  • Quitting smoking
  • Reducing coffee and alcohol intake

Addressing underlying health concerns like diabetes and pancreas issues could also help treat yellow tongue.

Are There Tests to Diagnose the Cause of Yellow Tongue?

If yellow tongue doesn't go away with lifestyle changes, an examination and tests might be necessary to finalize a diagnosis or determine any underlying issues. In this case, a healthcare provider might:

  • Ask about medical history, including recent medication changes and lifestyle habits
  • Swab a part of the tongue to send a bacteria sample for laboratory testing
  • Conduct a tongue biopsy by scraping a part of the tongue for examination

Testing for other health conditions might include:

  • A blood test for diabetes, pancreatic concerns, or liver issues that can cause jaundice
  • X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or other scans to diagnose pancreatic cancer

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If yellowing of the tongue doesn't disappear with better oral hygiene or if you experience other physical symptoms, like yellowing of the skin or constant dehydration, a healthcare specialist could help with diagnosing the cause and recommending treatment options.


Yellow tongue is a phenomenon caused by bacteria on the tongue, and it is usually harmless unless caused by underlying undiagnosed health issues. Causes of yellow tongue can include caffeine and alcohol consumption, needing to improve oral hygiene (like brushing, flossing, and scraping the tongue adequately), and smoking. If yellow tongue doesn't disappear with improved oral hygiene, a healthcare professional might need to make an official diagnosis.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes yellow tongue?

    Yellow tongue is caused by extra bacteria on the tongue. This can be a result of poor oral hygiene or consuming too much alcohol or caffeine. smoking, some prescription medications and cancer treatments, and illegal drugs. Sometimes yellow tongue can point to underlying health issues like diabetes, pancreas issues, and in rare cases, jaundice.

  • How can I get rid of yellow tongue?

    In addition to brushing, flossing, and using a tongue scraper regularly, brushing the tongue with a solution of one part hydrogen peroxide and five parts water and rinsing with water once a day can help treat yellow tongue. Reducing alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, and illegal drug consumption can also help, as can eating more raw fruits and vegetables.

  • Is yellow tongue a sign of COVID-19?

    A recent review of 40 studies found that tongue color changes and other oral health issues seemed linked to COVID-19 infection. This might be because enzymes (chemicals that cause reactions in the body) in the mouth are receptive to the virus, resulting in changes to the balance of bacteria in the mouth. Drugs that treat COVID-19 can also affect the body's bacteria. Also, infection can lessen saliva in the mouth, which causes bacteria to remain on the tongue.

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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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By Neha Kashyap
Neha is a New York-based health journalist who has written for WebMD, ADDitude, HuffPost Life, and dailyRx News. Neha enjoys writing about mental health, elder care, innovative health care technologies, paying for health care, and simple measures that we all can take to work toward better health.