Why are there unusual white spots on your tongue?

A tongue is often called “the strongest muscle of the body”. It is made up of a group of muscles which allow us to taste the food, swallow, and talk. A healthy tongue is of pink color and covered with small nodules called papillae.

There are lots of small spots on the tongue for taste and sensation. Usually, they are not very noticeable. But if spots are of an unusual color, cause irritation, or other symptoms accompany them, they can be the sign of a health problem.

Tongue spots can be uncomfortable and painful, but they are usually not so serious. Often, they resolve without any treatment. But, some spots on the tongue, might signal a severe underlying problem which needs quick medical attention. You may identify the cause of some spots easily, but others require further examination.

Healthy tongue spots

There are four kinds of healthy spots which naturally appear on your tongue. The medical term used for these spots is papillae.

• Fungiform papillae; these are the small spots which appear all over the tongue. A person has 200 to 400 of these. Mostly, they are present at the tip and edges of your tongue. Each of these papillae contains 3 to 5 taste buds.
• Circumvallate papillae; are bigger spots which appear at the back of the tongue. They are slightly raised and are arranged in a ‘v’ shape. Usually, an individual has 7 to 12 spots, with each comprising thousands of taste buds.
• Foliate papillae; appear on the back and at the edges of the tongue. A person usually has around 20, each one containing hundreds of taste buds.
• Filiform papillae; are found at the front of the tongue. There are more of this type of papillae than any other and they do not contain taste buds.

The basic purpose of papillae is to help people to sense and taste with the tongue. However, nerves which send messages about flavor to the brain are connected to these taste buds. Papillae also play an important role in giving information about temperature, chewing food, and speaking.

Unusual white spots on the tongue

White spots on the tongue may be a harmless sign of adequate dehydration which needs no interference or it may appear as a disturbing feature of a primary organic condition. Most of the time, white spots are due to the gathering of bacteria, cellular debris, and dead cells which gives the tongue a white appearance.

Serious conditions which may present with white spots on the tongue comprise various fungal or bacterial infections or in some cases pre-cancerous disorders of the tongue or oral cavity. There are several infectious conditions which may present with different changes in tongue appearance. Leukoplakia is one of such conditions.

What is leukoplakia?

Leukoplakia is a Greek word which means ‘white patch’. These white patches develop on the tongue, the inside of the cheek, or on the floor of the mouth. Basically, it is the mouth’s reaction to continuing irritation of the mouth’s mucous membranes. But its actual cause is unknown. Furthermore, these patches can occur at any stage of your life. But they are most common in senior adults.

“Hairy” leukoplakia is an uncommon form of leukoplakia. It is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus. However,this uncommon form is seen only in people infected with HIV, have AIDS, or AIDS-related complex.

It consists of uncertain, white patches on the tongue and less frequently, somewhere else in the mouth. Leukoplakia also has some resemblance with thrush which is an infection caused by the fungus Candida. It is common in adults, usually occurs if the immune system is not working suitably.

Causes of leukoplakia

As you use your tongue continually, it can be uncomfortable when you experience tongue problems, counting soreness and discoloration. Therefore, there are many causes for a number of common tongue signs. Causes of leukoplakia can include;

  • Irritation from rough teeth, fillings, or crowns, or ill-fitting dentures which rubs against cheek or gum
  • Sun exposure to the lips
  • Oral cancer (though rare)
  • Tobacco use, chronic smoking, or other pipe smoking
  • HIV or AIDS

Symptoms of leukoplakia

The white or gray colored patches commonly develop on your tongue in leukoplakia. But their occurrences in gums, a roof of the mouth, or the inside of the cheeks of mouth may also be a sign of leukoplakia.

These patches may develop slowly over weeks to months. They can be thick, slightly raised, and may ultimately take on a tough and rough texture. Usually, it is painless, but may be sensitive to heat, touch, spicy foods, or other irritation.

Diagnosis of leukoplakia

Your dentist may diagnose leukoplakia upon proper inspection; however, a biopsy will possibly be taken to rule out other causes, like oral cancer. For proper examination in the lab, a small piece of tissue from the lesion will be removed during biopsy. Moreover, a distressing agent will be used so that you will not feel any pain.

Treatment for Leukoplakia

Treatment for leukoplakia involves the removal of the source of irritation. For instance, if leukoplakia is caused by an irregular tooth or a rough surface on a denture or a filling, the tooth will be leveled and dental appliances fixed. If smoking is the cause of leukoplakia, you will be asked to reduce or stop smoking or using other tobacco products.

Usually, leukoplakia is harmless, and lesions clear in a few weeks or months after the removal of a source of irritation. If elimination of the source of irritation is ineffective and it does not reduce leukoplakia, the lesion may need to be removed surgically.

For that, the lesion can be removed either by your dentist or by an oral surgeon. However, hairy leukoplakia needs treatment with antiviral medication.


Here are some tips which can aid you to steer away from white spots on your tongue;

  • To reduce the chance or the recurrence of white spots on the tongue, try to maintain high dental care standards. Properly brushing your teeth and staying hydrated makes the environment inappropriate for bacterial growth. Antibacterial mouthwash can also be used for better results.
  • Avoid over spiced and acidic foods. Furthermore, try to avoid food that increases the chances of getting damaged. Spicy foods aggravate the lining of the tongue and mouth.
  • Avoid excessive alcohol intake and smoking as these could increase chances of oral cancers.
  • Limit sugar intake as sugar is a breeding place for oral bacteria.
  • Try to use home remedies such as salt water and baking soda to get rid of bacteria.

You can prevent or get rid of tongue problems by practicing some good dental hygiene. Brush and floss regularly. Moreover, regularly see your dentist for checkups and cleanings.

Areeba Hussain

Areeba is an independent medical and healthcare writer. For the last three years, she is writing for Tophealthjournal. Her prime areas of interest are diseases, medicine, treatments, and alternative therapies. Twitter @Areeba94789300

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