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Updated 22 May 2015

Hairy tongue

Hairy tongue is cause by overgrowth of a particular type of taste bud.

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What is a hairy tongue?

A hairy tongue is due to a profuse overgrowth of a particular type of taste bud – the filiform papillae – which gives the appearance of thick fur on the tongue.

What causes a hairy tongue?

This can result from:
  • Antibiotic treatment
  • Fever
  • Excessive use of mouthwashes which liberate oxygen from the mouth environment
  • Reduction in salivary flow due to problems with the salivary glands

Brown papillae are usually due to tobacco staining or overgrowth of a particular type of bacteria called chromogenic – meaning colour producing.

What are the symptoms and signs of a hairy tongue?

There are no symptoms associated with a hairy tongue.

The appearance of the tongue is characteristic – it looks furry.

Hairy tongue must be distinguished from oral hairy leukoplakia.

Oral hairy leukoplakia (OHL) is caused by a virus (the Epstein-Barr virus). OHL is characterised by whitish, streaky plaques, usually located on the sides of the tongue at the back. OHL is strongly associated with HIV/AIDS.

How is a hairy tongue treated?

Treatment is of the underlying cause, such as stopping antibiotics or mouthwashes or dealing with the salivary gland problems.

When to see your doctor

Any abnormal appearance of the tongue should be investigated by a doctor.

(Reviewed by Prof H.F. Jordaan)

 
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