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Yellow Tongue Meaning, Causes, Cancer, Furry Tongue and Treatments


What is a yellow tongue? What does it mean, why do I have a yellow coated tongue or what causes the yellow stuff, film or coat on my tongue? 

Normal tongue appearance, not yellow, green or black
Normal tongue appearance

Discover more on yellow coating on tongue including causes, treatments, in baby, in toddler, in HIV and cancer patients and much more including Chinese medicine insight on this tongue condition. 

Is it an early symptom of black hairy tongue

A yellow tongue (yellow coating, film, residue, layer or stuff) is temporary and harmless tongue discoloration that makes its surface appear yellow. 

According to Mayo Clinic, it “is an early sign of a disorder known as black hairy tongue” and rarely a symptom for jaundice characterized by a yellowing of the skin and eye whites due to gallbladder or liver problems. Besides black hairy tongue, the other causes we will discuss later could also be responsible for a yellow tongue surface.

This problem affects both adults and children (infants, toddlers or newborn babies) and it seems to affect some women particularly when they are pregnant, i.e., yellow coating tongue while or during pregnancy probably associated with hormonal changes.

Other symptoms

Depending on the causes in your case, it could be accompanied by various symptoms. These symptoms include a dry mouth, bad taste in and burning sensation. Some people have a fever, sore throat, bumps (a tongue with little bumps), a cold, bad breath (halitosis), red dots on the tongue, among other symptoms.

The problem could affect various part of your tongue, i.e., you could have yellow color on the back of the tongue, on the sides, under the tongue or even at the tip of the tongue. Sometimes, your gums, roof of the mouth, inside cheeks, and other parts of your mouth might turn yellow (or yellow-white).

Finally, yellow coated tongue tends to be common in the morning when you wake up, i.e., yellow tongue in the morning that could be yellow-green, yellow-white or orange.  The problem can also be present at night or always. It all depends on what could be behind it.

 Causes or meaning 

Your tongue can tell you a lot about your general health, i.e., whether it is smooth, has map-like patches (geographic tongue), is wrinkled, scalloped, has bumps, is white, is hairy, is yellow, etc. So, what does having a yellow coated tongue mean or what causes this problem?

1. Black Hairy or furry tongue 

The most common cause of the yellow tongue (film, coating or stuff) is dead skin and food buildup on papillae (the small projections on the tongue surface) especially if the papillae get enlarged, swollen or rough. 

This, coupled with colored pigments that bacteria or yeast in your mouth might produce can cause a yellowish tongue or a swollen yellow tongue, i.e., “black, hairy tongue develops when dead cells build up on the papillae, inviting bacteria, yeast, and food to become trapped in them” [].

The black furry tongue is not always black as the name suggests. It can have white, brown, purple, tan, green or orange color shades, especially at its initial stages. When your yellow coated tongue is due to the black hairy tongue, you are likely to have other symptoms such as:

  • A furry, fuzzy or hairy tongue
  • Metallic taste
  • Bad breath (halitosis)
  • Tickling or itchy sensation especially if your papillae have overgrown.

Furthermore, having naturally long papillae can trap dead cells on your tongue which can also get stained with various substances such as tobacco, food, etc. making your tongue surface appear yellow.

2. Antibiotic use

It is common to have a yellow film tongue after antibiotic especially after using antibiotics such as amoxicillin, ampicillin, doxycycline monohydrate, etc. 

This is due to the shift of the right balance of oral microbes (yeast and bacteria) or what is referred to natural flora balance in your mouth. This change gives a conducive environment for the thriving of harmful yeast responsible for the yellow color on your tongue.

3. Excess growth of bacteria in your mouth

Excessive growth of bacteria in the mouth, especially the “gas-emitting bacteria on the tongue and below the gum line” [] are often known to cause the white or yellow tongue and bad breath.  This is closely related to the black hairy tongue.

4. Oral care products

The type of mouth care product, especially mouthwashes can make your tongue to be orange or yellow in appearance. For instance, “regular use of mouthwashes containing oxidizing agents, such as peroxide, or astringent agents, such as witch hazel or menthol’’ [] is known to cause yellowish color on your tongue surface.

5. Jaundice

Although rare, jaundice could also lead to not just a yellow tongue but also yellowing of your skin and eye whites. This color change is due to excess bilirubin, “yellow-colored pigment of red blood cells” []. Jaundice has a high prevalence in newborns and infants but can also affect adults.

6. UTI infections

According to, “a thick yellow coat in the back of your tongue might be an early sign of a urinary tract infection, while the same coat on the front section of your tongue is more likely an upper respiratory issue.”

7. Piercing, tooth extraction, or tonsillectomy

It is possible to have a sore tongue and yellow film on the tongue after piercing, tooth extraction or after tonsillectomy. 

The yellowing should last for two to three days, and it is associated with inflamed papillae, the cleaning agents used after these procedures or having other infections especially oral thrush. 

However, if you have yellow discharge, it is an indication you have a  bacterial infection.

8. Post nasal drainage

One of the signs that some people have when they suffer from “post- nasal drainage is if they develop a white or yellowish colored film or coating on the top or dorsum of their tongue" [] and bad breath. 

Postnasal drainage is a condition where someone produces excessive mucus by nasal mucosa, and it accumulated on back of the nose and throat.  This problem is due to diseases and disorders such as rhinitis, acid reflux, allergy, swallowing disorders, sinusitis, among others.

9. Scarlet fever

Scarlet fever is known to cause a rough or coarse rash on various parts of the body including trunk, limp and face. It also creates red bumps on the tongue as well as a yellowish white coat or film. When the film pills, you will end up having a strawberry tongue (red and beefy).

10. Other causes 

There are many other reasons why your tongue is yellow, and they include the following:

  • Geographic tongue – This condition is known to make the tongue to have white or yellow patches that look like a map.
  • Dehydration
  • Dry mouth
  • Fever
  • Acid reflux especially if you have a yellow film on tongue and heartburn and a nasty smell or bad breath at times.  
  • Mouth breathing -  breathing via your mouth due to cold, fever or sickness can cause make your tongue yellow.
  • Excessive tobacco use, tea, and coffee are associated with a yellow-coated tongue.
  • Taking medications that contain bismuth such as Pepto-Bismol
  • Tongue irritation due drinking beverages while they are super hot might burn or irritated your tongue especially the papillae making it appear white or yellow.
  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Eating soft foods that do not rub or scrape off the dead skin on your tongue.

These are just but a few of thick yellow coating or plague on the tongue. There are many others, some of which we will discuss in what follows.

Chinese medicine (TCM)

Chinese medicine has a way of interpreting yellow coated tongue in relation to your general health, weather condition or cause.

  • A white-yellow coated tongue signifies “excess of dampness, or pathogenic fluid” [], Shaoyang pattern or interior and exterior pattern. This relates to with a poorly functioning gut and stomach problems as well as summer when dampness is high. 
  • A red tongue indicates excess heat with a thick yellow film or coating as well as swollen taste buds.
  • Tongue enlargement coupled with greasy yellow coat often indicated stomach damp heat and spleen problems.
  • “A slightly yellow coating indicates Wind-Heat or Wind-Cold turning to Wind-Heat” [], a yellow coated tongue indicates ‘interior heat pattern’ and if it is deep yellow, the heat is severe.  Burnt yellow tongues show your body has accumulated heat.
  • Finally, according to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), a moist yellow coating on a swollen tongue body indicates “indicates interior Damp-Heat or Yang Deficiency” [].

To be able to understand what yellow coating on tongue means in Chinese medicine, you need to have some knowledge of how Chinese medicine works.

Is the yellowish coating thrush

Oral thrush (also known as oral candidiasis) is a possible cause of a yellow tongue. When Candida albicans, a fungi which usually is in your mouth lining overgrows, it can cause some symptoms which include creamy yellowish or white lesion on your tongue, inner cheek, “roof of your mouth, your gums or tonsils, or the back of your throat” [].  

This yellow coating often brushes off and might cause slight bleeding when you scrap it off.

Oral thrush is common in babies especially infants or newborns as well as older adults. 

However, it can affect anyone, and it is likely to have other symptoms such as soreness (burning sensation), redness, cottony mouth feeling, inability to taste, cheese like bumps, among others which can help you determine whether it is thrush or not.

Can HIV STD cause it

Is there a yellow tongue HIV connection or it is just a fallacy? The answer is, having yellow stuff on your tongue is a rare sign or symptom of HIV or AIDS that is not specific to having HIV. 

When you have HIV, the yellow coating on the tongue is often caused by certain types oral disease since you have a compromised immunity or weakened long after diagnosis (not in early stages). One such infection that is common is oral thrush that can make your tongue to appear white, yellow or other colors.

Sore spots, bumps 

Sometimes you can have a white or yellow sore spots on your tongue. These yellow sore spots on the tongue can be painful blisters, injury swellings or swollen papillae (small, little or tiny raised bumps on the tongue that have taste buds). 

They are often due to infections such as canker sores, cold sores (oral herpes and not the genital herpes STD), swollen buds, allergic reactions, tobacco use, dental appliances, tongue piercing, or any other infection.

When you have them, they can make your tongue sore and or make swallowing difficult. If you mainly see yellow ulcers on your tongue, they are most likely to be canker sores especially if they have a red border while the inside is white or yellow.

Yellow spots on tongue or bumps can affect children, toddlers, newborns, infants or adults and they can be on any part of your tongue and mouth including under your tongue, back of the tongue and throat. Depending on the cause, do not be surprised if the yellow spots on your tongue come with other symptoms such as a sore throat, fever or cold.


We have seen many causes of yellow gunk, buildup, coating or film. Some people often get afraid thinking it might be oral cancer. 

However, cancer is the least likely cause of this problem unless you have other evident oral cancer symptoms.

With a sore throat and strep throat

Sometimes, you could be having a yellow coated tongue and a sore throat. This could also have various symptoms such as an earache, swollen glands, cough, fatigue, bad breath, yellow mucus on the tongue, sores, and stuffy nose. Some of the common cause of a sore throat and a yellow tongue include:

1. Strep throat 

This condition is due to a bacteria known as streptococcal often found on tonsils and throat. 

Its symptoms include high fever, pain in swallowing, severe sore throat, swollen lymph nodes (or glands) and tonsils as well as white and yellow spots often at the back of your tongue and on tonsils. 

2. Mononucleosis or mono

Mono is a viral infection commonly referred as mono or kissing disease. Saliva transmits it. 

Symptoms are often in adolescent, and young adults, as opposed to children, they include fever, fatigue, skin rash, headache, swollen lymph nodes, a sore throat and “tonsils become swollen and develop a whitish-yellow covering.” [].

Other causes include allergic reactions, oral or throat cancer, inflamed tonsils and adenoids, postnasal drainage (causes yellow mucus or film on the tongue and sore throat), sinus infections, among other conditions.

Yellowish under the tongue

If you suffer from a yellow under the tongue, some of the common causes include biliary colic, alcoholic hepatitis, hepatitis A and B, mononucleosis, viral hepatitis, gallbladder disease, gallstones, and Epstein Barr infection. 

Besides sickness such as Jaundice in children, sickle cell anemia, cirrhosis, are the other uncommon causes of yellow under the tongue.

Having a small yellow bump or sores under tongue could be an indication of canker sores while a lump could indicate oral cancer or swollen salivary glands or stones.

When on baby

In babies (newborns, infants or toddlers), a yellow tongue can be caused by many things including oral thrush (the most common). Others that can cause this problem include acid reflux, canker sores (if the baby is unable to breastfeed since canker sores are painful white or yellow ulcerative spots in the mouth), among others.

Newborns, infants or babies too can develop black hairy or hairy tongue which will be accompanied by bad breath, itchy or burning sensation, 

Treatments and cures

In most instances, yellow tongue treatment will involve good self-care since the condition is harmless. The most effective way to handle this issue is dealing with the underlying cause. Some of the treatments or remedies that often help include the following:

  • “Try gently brushing your tongue with a solution that is 1 part hydrogen peroxide and five parts water once a day” []. Rise your mouth severally afterward. 
  • Another way to get rid of a yellow tongue is getting a soft toothbrush or tongue scraper. They will help reduce the buildup of the yellow or white stuff on your tongue.
  • Quit tobacco consumption (chewing and smoking) to help address the problem of having too much bacteria in your mouth. 
  • Increasing fiber in your diet can also reduce bacteria in your mouth and thus a yellow coated tongue treatment or remedy.
  • If caused by bacteria, antibiotics and using mouthwashes with antibacterial agents might be of some help.
  • Stop drinking very hot beverages
  • Ensure you drink a lot of water to avoid a dry mouth and dehydration.

Yellow tongue diagnosis and when to see a doctor

If you are not sure about the cause of yellow film on your tongue, it is advisable to see a doctor for further help. Sometimes a yellow tongue differential diagnosis might help uncover what could be behind it since as we have seen, there are many possible causes.

If you have a yellow tongue always and it persists even after trying the various treatments and remedies, it is a good idea to see a doctor especially if the white part of your eye turns yellow and or your skin, see a doctor since it might be an indication you have jaundice.

References and sources