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Black Tongue & Alcohol Abuse | Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment

Published on April 19, 2021
Black Tongue & Alcohol Abuse | Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment

Of all the symptoms and side effects of alcohol abuse, developing a black, hair-coated tongue seems like it should be one of the most serious and alarming. 

But in reality, this oral health condition is generally harmless and easily resolved, though it can signal the potential for other, far more serious, and less-visible health effects.

Can Alcohol Use Really Turn Your Tongue Black?

If use is excessive, yes

But this isn’t the only cause of black hairy tongue syndrome. Along with excessive alcohol consumption, black hairy overgrowth on the surface of the tongue can also be caused by:

  • excessive coffee or black tea consumption
  • antibiotic use
  • tobacco use
  • poor oral hygiene
  • xerostomia (dry mouth)
  • mouthwashes containing hydrogen peroxide or other oxidizing agents
  • exclusively soft or liquid diets

Also, not every tongue turns the same color. This condition can also turn tongues brown, tan, green, yellow, or white.

Why Would These Things Discolor Your Tongue?

Black hairy tongues develop when dead skin cells build up on the filiform papillae of the tongue. These are tiny bumps or projections that contain taste buds, and when they’re smothered in dead cell buildup they tend to grow much longer, giving the tongue a hairy appearance.

At this point they can easily trap bacteria, yeast, tobacco products, or other substances, resulting in black discoloration.

The dead cells themselves can build up when you prevent the body from self-cleaning properly by over-consuming damaging substances (alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, or peroxide), preventing normal scraping by eating a soft diet, or simply keeping the mouth too dry or too dirty.

Note that bismuth-containing products, such as Pepto-Bismol, can also turn your tongue black by interacting with trace amounts of sulfur to form a dark pigment. This specific cause of black tongue coloration will go away after you stop taking the medicine.

Symptoms Of Black Hairy Tongue

If you have a black or discolored, hairy tongue, you’ll probably notice it in the mirror first. However, aside from the visual change, you may also experience symptoms including:

  • a metallic taste, or other changes in taste or flavor
  • halitosis (bad breath)
  • gagging or tickling feelings, especially if the papillae have grown excessively
Image of a man with a black “hairy” tongue.

Is This Condition Dangerous?

Black hairy tongue is generally a harmless condition.

However, if your black hair tongue has developed as a result of excessive alcohol consumption, it can be a warning sign that your alcohol use is putting your entire body at risk.

Effects Of Alcohol Abuse

Despite being a legal substance for those of age, alcohol can be extremely harmful if overused with chronic overconsumption causing serious long-term negative health effects that may include:

  • high blood pressure
  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • liver disease
  • digestive problems
  • cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, or colon
  • immune system impairment
  • learning and memory impairment
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • social withdrawal
  • significantly reduced life expectancy

Treating Black/Discolored Tongues

Naturally, if you are concerned about tongue discoloration you should talk to your healthcare provider. However, black hairy tongue syndrome is usually temporary, harmless, and easily fixed. 

To take care of the problem, gently clean the tongue’s surface with a tongue scraper, eliminate the probable causes of the discoloration, practice good oral hygiene in the future by brushing with a soft toothbrush and flossing daily, and eat a balanced diet.

This may also help with any bad breath you might be experiencing.

Treating Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol use disorder (alcohol addiction) can be a discouraging and challenging condition, but professional treatment can help.

Personalized treatment programs are built on compassionate, evidenced-based services tailored to your needs and your situation.

Specific services we offer relating to alcohol use disorder include:

If you or a loved one struggle with alcohol use disorder, please contact us today.

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) - Alcohol Use and Your Health
Mayo Clinic - Black hairy tongue - Symptoms and causes
Michigan Medicine - Treating a Black or Coated Tongue

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