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What Causes White Patches in the Mouth and Tongue?

SmokingSmoking causes a number of common changes in the mouth and tongue, often resulting in the appearance of white patches in the mouth or a whitish coating on the tongue. At times these changes in the mouth and tongue may lead to oral cancer.


The Drying and Irritating Effect of Smoking

Besides the contents of tobacco smoke, the actual temperature and drying effects alter the consistency of tissue in the mouth. This happens frequently with the practice of reverse smoking where the lit end is placed in the mouth and smoked.

The effect of reverse smoking results in white patches or “callouses” caused by increased keratin production. The drying effect has been associated with a white or translucent covering or film on mouth tissues.


Effects of the Toxins in Smoke

By-products of smoking have been shown to produce the following effects:

  • Inflammation of tongue, gums, and salivary glands
  • Reduced blood flow to mouth and gum tissues
  • Increased bacteria in the mouth
  • Slower healing of wounds
  • Reduced ability to fight infections
  • Bad breath
  • Decrease in salivary flow
  • Plaque and calculus on teeth


Alcohol Also Damages the Mouth

There is a direct relationship between these problems in the mouth and alcohol consumption. The white covering discussed above is also related to the drying effects of alcohol. In addition, there are other changes that alcohol causes in the mouth that may ultimately lead to oral cancer.


Other Causes of White Tongue

White tongue can be related to other factors such as poor oral hygiene, overgrowth of tissue covering the tongue, and certain foods.

Overgrowth of tissue covering the tongue and bad breath are commonly associated with white tongue. This happens when the covering on the tongue overgrows too long and increases the chance for food debris, bacteria, yeasts, and sloughed tissue to collect, resulting in bad fetid breath and a “white” appearance. Brushing the tongue with a toothbrush has been shown to decrease the incidence of bad breath.

Foods – In some cultures, certain foods such as habenaro and jalapeño peppers are associated with the development of white tongue in response to the chemicals in the peppers.


How to find a dental care provider:

Dental & Health Care Sites that Don’t Require Insurance (Bureau of Primary Health Care)
Find a Dentist  (Academy of General Dentistry)
Find a Dentist: ADA Member Directory (American Dental Association)
Find a Local Dental Organization (American Dental Association)


More information about mouth conditions:


Hope Through Research – You Can Be Part of the Answer!

Many research studies are underway to help us learn about mouth diseases. Would you like to find out more about being part of this exciting research? Please visit the following links:


For more information:

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    This article is a NetWellness exclusive.

    Last Reviewed: Jul 11, 2011

    Formerly, Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences

    School of Dental Medicine

    Case Western Reserve University