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(WJW) — An alarming but ultimately harmless case of hairy tongue was reported in a 64-year-old Ohio man.
You read that right — hairy tongue.
It’s when the little thread-like bumps on a person’s tongue grow longer and discolored, usually caused by poor oral hygiene or, in the Ohio patient’s case, smoking and the use of certain medications, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
The man came to a primary care clinic at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton after his tongue had been discolored for two weeks, according to an article published July 6 in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The man, who is a smoker, had finished a course of antibiotics to treat an infection of his gums three weeks earlier. After he reported the discoloration, physicians at first thought it was oral candidiasis, or thrush, and gave him an anti-fungal medication. But his tongue didn’t return to normal, according to the Journal.
The man told physicians he could taste things normally and that he wasn’t in any pain. They also didn’t find any other mouth lesions, according to the Journal.
Hairy tongue is “relatively common,” occurring in up to 13% of the population, and more commonly in older folks, according to the American Academy of Oral Medicine.
The tongue bumps — called filiform papillae — are normally 1 millimeter long and are supposed to be shed like skin before they grow, according to the Clinic.
But if there’s nothing to abrade them and don’t fall off, they can grow to about three-quarters of an inch, according to the Clinic. As they grow, they collect food, bacteria and dead skin cells, turning the tongue from pink to black, brown, white or green.
Sufferers may report a burning, ticking or gagging sensation, bad breath or that food tastes differently, according to the Clinic.
Doctors had the 64-year-old Ohio man gently scrub the surface of his tongue with a toothbrush four times a day and urged him to quit smoking.
Six months later, his tongue had returned to normal, according to the Journal — though he was still smoking.