White tongue refers to the whitish or grayish coating on the tongue that usually consists of bacteria, debris, and dead cells. While the appearance can be alarming to many, it is usually temporary and harmless. However, in some cases, white tongue can also indicate that there is an underlying condition. White tongue occurs when the entire tongue is coated or if there are white patches or spots on the tongue.
When in doubt, it is always best to seek a professional opinion to ensure that serious underlying conditions are treated early, as it will improve the prognosis and outcome for the patient.
White Tongue Cause #1: Leukoplakia
Oral leukoplakia refers to the presence of white patches or plaques in the mouth. These patches are usually found on the tongue but can also be seen on the lower lips, inside of the cheeks, on the back of the mouth, and gums. It can feel smooth, rough, thickened, or raised in different individuals. The patches can also be persistent and cannot be removed through scraping or regular brushing. Although it is rarely seen among those younger than 30 years old, it is six times as common in smokers compared to non-smokers.
The presence of oral leukoplakia increases the risk of squamous cell carcinoma of the mouth. This means those with oral leukoplakia should be examined by a physician to rule out harmful issues. It can also have a “hairy” appearance in some cases. Further investigation is recommended, but some believe that it may be caused by the Epstein Barr virus especially in individuals who have a weakened or suppressed immune system.