The Talking Monster

Alarm rings; you wake up. Your feet shuffle across to the bathroom, and you flip on the lightswitch, bracing for bright light. Your hands settle on the bathroom counter, and you look into the mirror. Like a yawning cave, you part your lips to reveal the horror inside. The appendage that was once bald and pink as a newborn pig has now turned into a black bear - a hairy tongue, blacker than the day before. You can't understand it. 

Black Tongue Origins

Physical conditions and diseases usually have a long, complicated Latin name to describe them, but in this case, medical doctors either call it black tongue or black hairy tongue. Humans have dealt with this condition as long as we've known; there's no particular historic point. Although many animals have a black (or gray) tongue, the color is permanent rather than temporary, as it normally is in humans. Cows, giraffes, and even some dogs possess a black-colored tongue.

Symptoms of Black Hairy Tongue

Black Hairy TongueCredit: galasrhiniblogThe name gives most of the symptoms away, but as with most conditions, there are variances and additional manifestations that can sometimes appear. Although most people's tongues appear black with this condition, they may also appear green, yellow or brown. The growths of "hair" on the tongue stem from filiform papillae, one of four types of prominences on the tongue used to provide a coating and cleaning on the tongue's surface[3]. Human hair, on the other hand,  is a much different material made of keratin, a type of protein[1]. The filiform papillae can lengthen to 15 times their regular size, creating enough fur to deter even the most avid french-kissers[2].

Other symptoms of black tongue are more rare, but they appear more regularly if you don't "nip them in the bud." All are contained within the mouth and throat area[2].

  • Tongue burning, agitation (glossopyrosis)
  • Metallic taste
  • Nausea
  • Bad breath
  • Gagging
  • Tickling in the back of the throat

Primary Causes of Black Tongue

Much like a showoff at school who can temporarily dislocate his shoulder, a hairy tongue exhibits flashy appearances without serious ramifications. In the vast majority of cases, victims of this condition do not brush their teeth, gums and tongue on a regular basis. Besides shoddy oral hygiene habits, products like cigarettes, chewing tobacco, coffee and tea can stain teeth and all parts of the mouth. Other causes of black hairy tongue include a few surprises:

  • Medications like Pepto Bismul including the chemical bismuth in their list of ingredients
  • Various types of antibiotics inhibiting or encouraging the growth of oral bacteria
  • Mouthwash which includes ingredients such as witch hazel, menthol or peroxide
  • Dehydration
  • Lack of saliva
  • Radiation from the upper chest to the top of the head

Remember: Black tongue in itself is not serious, but the bad habits that normally cause this condition can lead to tooth decay, gum disease and spread to other parts of the body. Complications can continue to worsen without proper maintenance of the tongue and mouth. Target your unhealthy habits, not the condition - the condition will clear up once you have started to live a healthier lifestyle.

Tame the Monster: Black Tongue Treatment

Keep black hairy tongue away: Brush and Scrape the TongueCredit: janderson99Improving oral hygiene habits normally clears up black hairy tongue, but it may take some time depending on how long you have had the condition, the amount of bacteria residing in your mouth and other factors. Begin with a soft toothbrush and toothpaste. Start scrubbing the tongue and clean off as much residue as possible without leaving it raw. Work your way around all of your teeth, cleaning every part of your mouth. Use mouthwash that does not contain any of the ingredients mentioned in the "causes" section.

Be thorough. If you have an ant problem in your home, you don't spray a single room. You take your canisters into every room, laying waste to every ant that thought they were a guest in your house. Same principle applies to your oral hygiene habits. From this day forth, you are Mr. Clean.

Think about the types of medications and products you put into your mouth each day. If any of those match the elements listed under "causes," them stop your intake immediately (easier said than done, right?)[2]. Drink plenty of water to keep your mouth from getting too dry and allowing bacteria to grow in large quantities.

Eat healthy food that keeps you chewing, crunching, and tearing before swallowing it. That tongue needs food that can clean it. If you're consistently practicing all of these newfound habits with little to no results for a month or two, then take the final steps to clean the hair and color off of your tongue.

Final Measures in Black Hairy Tongue Treatment

If you kept up great oral hygiene without results, than unfortunately your mom's method of cleaning out your mouth after letting expletives fly won't do the trick. It is time to see the doctor to receive either:

  • Oral prescription drugs such as antifungal or antibiotic medication
  • Electrosurgery or laser surgery on the elongated papillae of the tongue

 The chances of needing to take these "final measures" are slim and only recommended if you have changed your oral habits for the better. Black tongue has the appearance of something sinister, but it's usually only the outward symbol of an internal problem: Bad oral hygiene. Keep your closet (mouth) clean so that this monster never has a place to hide ever again.