‘Black Hairy Tongue’ Probably Didn’t Kill Julie Powell

Julie Powell, author of Julie & Julia , tweeted before her recent death at age 49 that she had “something that literally looks like a black hairy tongue” and that her doctor thought it was “not is of great importance.” This, of course, gave rise to rampant speculation that the black hairy tongue was actually significant and may have been linked to her death. ( Gizmodo has more on this here ; Powell reportedly died of cardiac arrest.) So what is black hairy tongue?

What does a black hairy tongue look like?

First of all, if you want to see a photo of this state, be sure to check it out; I won’t share it here (because it’s a little rough), but you can find it at the Mayo Clinic . Note that although some of the tongue may have a discolored area, it is not always black. (It may appear brown, green, yellow, or other colors.)

The language will also look fuzzy. This is because the little, fuzzy bits that our tongue normally has, called papillae, don’t protrude as they normally would, so they appear longer.

Why do people get a black hairy tongue

These papillae on our tongue usually wear out at about the same rate as they grow. Just as our skin is constantly shedding dead cells, our tongue sheds its own cells in the course of daily life. For example, we lose a few cells every time we eat.

But if you have a black hairy tongue, these cells don’t wear off, and bacteria or other color-changing microorganisms can grow on the surface of your tongue.

A black hairy tongue is most likely the result of other medical conditions or personal care issues, rather than the cause. For example, if you have dry mouth due to medications or if you have eaten liquid or soft foods, you are more likely to develop a black hairy tongue. According to the Mayo Clinic, tobacco, alcohol, coffee or tea can also contribute to the disease.

What to do if the hairy tongue turns black

A black hairy tongue is not usually a problem on its own, but it can signal that something else is wrong. “The prognosis is excellent with the treatment of underlying diseases,” write gastroenterologists Gregory Hurwitz and Amy Tan in the World Journal of Gastroenterology .

They note that the condition is more common in people with cancer and HIV than in the general population. COVID can also cause several different oral problems, and black hairy tongue is “quite common” among COVID patients, according to this paper on tongue pathologies in COVID. According to her Twitter feed, Powell contracted COVID weeks before her death.

All of this means that you should seek medical help if you suddenly develop a black hairy tongue and don’t know why. Fluff on the tongue won’t hurt you on its own , but you need to make sure it’s not a sign of something more serious. At the same time, brushing or scraping the tongue can help with its unsightly appearance.

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