It may be hard to believe, but hairy tongue is an actual medical condition. It’s pretty harmless, but as the name implies it’s not something anyone wants as it can certainly be embarrassing.
The American Academy of Oral Medicine estimates 13 percent of Americans are affected by hairy tongue, but it’s more common among some groups than others. Drug users, tobacco users and older Americans seem to suffer from this condition more than others.
What Exactly Is Hairy Tongue?
Contrary to what the name implies, actual hair has nothing to do with hairy tongue. The name comes from the hairy appearance on the tongue when a buildup of filiform papillae occurs. Filiform papillae are cone-shaped projections on the surface of the tongue that shed and regrow often, just like skin cells. In hairy tongue, the filiform papillae do not shed and instead continue to grow, causing a hair-like appearance on the surface of the tongue. It’s more common in men and older people but can affect any age and gender.
What Causes Hairy Tongue?
It’s not always clear exactly what causes this medical condition, said Dr. John Pappas of Arcadia Dental Arts in Phoenix, Arizona.
“Some likely triggers include soft diets, poor oral hygiene, dry mouth, medications and excessive consumption of alcohol, coffee or tea,” he said. “The color on the tongue can sometimes help give us a clue as to what triggered it, such as coffee, tobacco and even some mouthwashes that can cause the tongue to appear black in color.”
What Are the Symptoms of Hairy Tongue?
In many cases, the only symptom of this condition is the appearance of a hairy tongue. For others, the roof of the mouth may feel ticklish when swallowing or the tongue may burn. It can cause bad breath along with a metallic or abnormal taste in the mouth. Some hairy tongue sufferers also experience nausea and a gagging sensation.
The colors on the tongue can include brown, gray, pink, green and black. It’s not always indicative of the cause and can sometimes be the result of foods or drinks you’re consuming.
How to Treat Hairy Tongue
The first thing people usually want to know when they discover this embarrassing condition is how to treat hairy tongue. In most cases, no treatment is required as the condition does not pose any significant health risk.
“For many patients, lifestyle changes to the habits that may have caused the hairy tongue are all that’s needed to correct the problem,” Pappas said. “Particularly improving oral hygiene and paying close attention to diet and water consumption.”
Of course, limiting alcohol, tobacco and drug use is always a good idea for overall improvement of health and medical conditions as these habits wreak havoc on the body’s immune system and ability to recover. If medication might be to blame, it’s important to talk to your doctor about an alternative medication.