Everything You Need to Know About Glossitis

Written by Brindles Lee Macon and Winnie Yu | Published on July 25, 2012
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP

Overview

Glossitis is an inflammation of the tongue that causes it to swell in size, change into different shades of red, and develop a smooth appearance on the surface. The tongue is the small, muscular organ in the mouth that helps you chew and swallow food. It also helps with your speech.

This condition can cause the papillae—the small bumps on the surface of the tongue—to disappear. Your papillae are very important to how you eat. They contain thousands of tiny sensors called taste buds. Severe inflammations that result in swelling, redness, and pain, may change the way you eat or speak.

The Types of Glossitis

There are several different types of glossitis

Acute Glossitis

Inflammation of your tongue that appears suddenly, often with severe symptoms, is acute glossitis. This type typically occurs during an allergic reaction.

Chronic Glossitis

Chronic glossitis is an inflamed condition of your tongue that appears often. This type of glossitis may begin as a symptom of another health condition.

Idiopathic Glossitis (Hunter’s Glossitis)

The cause of idiopathic glossitis is unknown. It does, however, affect the muscles of the tongue. In this condition up to 50 percent or more of the papillae can be lost.

Atrophic Glossitis

Atrophic glossitis occurs when a large number of papillae are lost resulting in changes to the tongue’s color and texture. This type of glossitis typically turns your tongue dark red.

What Causes Glossitis?

A number of things can cause inflammation of your tongue:

Allergic Reactions

Allergic reactions to medications, food, and other potential irritants may aggravate the papillae and the muscle tissues of the tongue. Potential irritants include toothpaste and certain types of medications that treat hypertension.

Disease

Certain diseases that affect your immune system may attack the tongue’s muscles and papillae. Oral herpes simplex, a virus that causes blisters, may contribute to swelling and pain in the tongue.

Low Iron Levels

Not having enough iron in the blood can trigger glossitis. Iron regulates cell growth by helping your body make red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen to your organs, tissues, and muscles. Low iron in the blood may result in low levels of myoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that is important for muscle health, including the tongue’s muscle tissue.

Dry Mouth

Dry mouth is caused by a lack of saliva. You need saliva to keep your tongue moist.

Mouth Trauma

Trauma caused by injuries can affect the condition of your tongue. Inflammation may come from dental appliances placed on your teeth or from cuts and burns on the tongue.

Who Is at Risk for Glossitis?

You may be at risk for tongue inflammation if you:

  • receive an injury to the mouth
  • wear braces or dentures that irritate your tongue
  • have herpes
  • have low iron
  • eat spicy foods
  • have dry mouth
  • have an allergic reaction
  • have an immune system health problem

What Are the Symptoms of Glossitis?

Your symptoms will vary depending on the cause of your problem. You may experience the following symptoms:

  • pain or tenderness in the tongue
  • swelling in the tongue
  • change in the color of your tongue
  • inability to speak, eat, or swallow
  • loss of papillae on the surface of your tongue

How Is Glossitis Diagnosed?

You may see your dentist or another healthcare provider for an assessment of your condition. Your healthcare provider will do an examination of your mouth. He or she may look for abnormal bumps and blisters on your tongue, gums, and soft tissues of your mouth. Samples of your saliva and blood may be taken and sent to a laboratory for further examination.

How Is Glossitis Treated?

Your healthcare provider may order specific medications to treat your glossitis.

Medications

Antibiotics and other medications that get rid of infections may be prescribed if bacteria or fungi are present in your mouth or body. Pain drugs may also be ordered to relieve your pain until your condition is successfully treated.

Home Care

Brushing and flossing your teeth several times a day may help improve the health of your tongue, gums, and teeth.

What Can Be Expected in the Long Term?

Most glossitis conditions go away with medication. Treatment may be more successful if you avoid foods that cause inflammation in the tongue. Using proper oral hygiene may help reduce or prevent further problems. Consult your healthcare provider if these treatment and preventive measures do not work.

If you experience severe swelling of the tongue that blocks your airway, seek emergency medical care.

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