The last time you took a good look at your tongue was probably after eating a piece of colored hard candy or taking a photo with your tongue out à la 2013 Miley Cyrus. Tongues are kind of weird when you think hard about them; they're hunks of muscular flesh in the middle of your mouth. In traditional Chinese medicine, how your tongue looks is a pretty big deal, and some doctors say they can diagnose an issue just by looking at the patterns and colors on it. Medical doctors and dentists can also tell a lot about your health by looking at your mouth and tongue (they don't make you say "ah" for nothing). So, if you notice your tongue is a little white, what does that mean?
That's probably tongue plaque, says Fariba Younai, DDS, professor of clinical dentistry at UCLA School of Dentistry. Your tongue naturally cleans itself and renews the cells on the surface to get rid of bacteria, dead cells, and debris, Dr. Younai says. But when someone has tongue plaque, that renewal doesn't happen and your tongue gets covered in a white film.
"This can happen with age, dry mouth, tobacco and alcohol use, and also with fever or illness," she says. While it's not necessarily a sign that you have a dirty mouth, you can get rid of tongue plaque by scraping your tongue and using mouthwash, she says. In other words, it's really no big deal. "Tongue plaque can cause bad breath, but, in itself, it is not considered a serious condition," she says.
There are a few other conditions that can cause white spots on your tongue, Dr. Younai says. If you see separate white spots on your tongue, it could be a sign of a superficial fungal infection, an inflammatory condition, or even early signs of tongue cancer, she says. You really shouldn't freak if you have a white spot on your tongue, but it's best if you contact your dentist or doctor so they can take a look and see if it's anything to be worried about. If you've been on antibiotics for a while, according to the Mayo Clinic, it's also possible that you could get a yeast infection in your mouth that turns your tongue white.
A healthy tongue should be pink and covered with small, uniform papillae (or bumps), according to the Cleveland Clinic. When you're brushing your teeth, it's a good idea to brush your tongue to get rid of any bacteria that might be lingering on the surface. A tongue scraper also does the same thing and is a handy tool to have. Your dentist can show you how to do this if you're not sure — and yeah, you probably should make a dentist appointment if you haven't been in a while.