Hairy tongue may sound like something straight out of a science fiction movie, and it does look every bit as frightening as its name suggests. However, there’s no need to be alarmed. Hairy tongue is harmless and easily treatable.
Hairy tongue, or lingua villosa, is a fairly common condition that is usually caused by an overgrowth of bacteria or fungi in the mouth. This overgrowth prevents your tongue’s skin cells from shedding, aggravating the buildup in your mouth. As the name suggests, it causes your tongue to look black, and in some cases even brown, white, green or any variety of color.
Why is it hairy? Your tongue’s surface is covered by what is generally known as the papilla, which is basically cone-shaped projections on your tongue. There are four kinds of papilla that can be found in your tongue, namely:
- the foliate papillae, which can be found at the base of your tongue
- the fungiform papilla, which distinguishes the five tastes
- the circumvallate papillae, which can be generally found at the middle of your tongue
- the filiform papilla, which covers two-thirds of your tongue. It does not contain taste buds, and its function seems to be mainly abrasive in nature.
One of your body’s functions is to shed the outer shell of your skin, called desquamation. This includes your tongue and in the case of hairy tongue, the overgrowth of bacteria or yeast impedes your tongue from shedding old cells to replace them with new ones. This results into hairlike growth or extensions on your tongue, a combination of accumulated bacteria or fungi, and old skin cells.
Many habits and conditions contribute to the development of hairy tongue, but it’s usually caused by poor oral hygiene translating to bacterial and fungi buildup in our mouths.
Other causes of hairy tongue include smoking tobacco, drinking too much coffee or tea, dehydration, using medication or other products that contain bismuth, excessive use of mouthwashes, alcohol, dry mouths or a lack of saliva and even radiation therapy to the neck or head. It may also be caused by your inability to produce enough saliva in your mouth and dehydration. While hairy tongue is observed to occur more to avid coffee and tea drinkers as well as tobacco smokers, there is no definitive study on what the exact cause of hairy tongue is; however, it’s been generally agreed upon that you have a higher chance of getting hairy tongue when you’re older due to the cumulative effects of those who are long-time smokers and coffee-drinkers.
Hairy tongue may also present itself in people who take intravenous drugs or are infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus or HIV.
Hairy tongue is not painful. Most people do not feel any discomfort at the onset of hairy tongue; however, they may feel a tickling feeling at the roof of the mouth, a metallic taste in the mouth, halitosis, nausea, and in severe cases, gagging.
People who have hairy tongue may also be susceptible to a secondary infection of Candida albicans, also known as mouth thrush. You may have developed this if you feel a burning sensation on your tongue.
Teeth and Mouth Care. Good oral hygiene is usually the key to preventing and even getting rid of hairy tongue. Brush your teeth three times a day. You should also brush you tongue gently twice a day, using a soft toothbrush. You may also use a tongue scraper or even an inverted tablespoon to thoroughly clean the area. Brushing your tongue will wear away the overgrowth of pappilae that’s built up in your mouth
Water World. Drink plenty of water to keep your mouth clean and to prevent your mouth from going dry. You can also rinse your mouth with diluted peroxide water, that is one part peroxide to five parts water. Rinse it again with water afterwards. You can also use salycilic acid or apply topical retinoids to your tongue.
Creams. Hairy tongue may also be caused by a fungal infection, and you may use antifungal creams to treat it accordingly.
Diet. Alter your diet. Your diet may be composed of excessive soft foods so add some variety and more roughage, as soft food won’t clean off your tongue effectively. This food usually pertains to those with a harder, rougher texture such as apples and pears.
Kick the Habit. Hairy tongue is most likely to occur to those who drink coffee and tea heavily, as well as tobacco-smokers. If you fall under one of these categories, lessen your coffee and tea consumption, if you cannot give it up completely, and smoke less. Giving up tobacco smoking also has other health benefits so do consider doing that as well.
Go Pro. If the suggested treatments do not work, consult your dentist or doctor. If your hairy tongue is caused by bacteria, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics as treatment.
Tthe infected pappilae may also be removed using techniques such as carbon dioxide laser burning and electrodessication. Don’t worry, both procedures require a local anesthetic and the infected tissue will be scraped off using a special tool. Carbon dioxide laser burning is usually used for surgical procedures on your skin because your skin absorbs this light very well.
Keep in mind that hairy tongue is different from a condition called hairy leukoplakia, a condition where the side of your tongue appears to have a white fuzzy or corrugated patch. This is usually seen in severe cases of immunodeficiency — that is, if your immune system is very weak.
Hairy tongue, while widely considered a benign condition, is not something that you’d want waking up to. After all, your hair belongs on your head, not on your tongue. As always, prevention is always the best cure, and practicing good oral hygiene, brushing your teeth and tongue twice a day, keeping yourself well-hydrated, and having moderate, if not less consumption of coffee, tea and tobacco, will go a long way in helping you get rid of that nasty hairy tongue.