A tongue burn is a common ailment. Typically, the condition occurs after eating or drinking something that’s too hot. Standard first-aid treatment for burns can also work for a tongue burn.
A mild burn on your tongue can be a nuisance, but it will eventually heal. If you have a serious burn, seek immediate medical attention.
In some cases, you may feel a burning sensation on your tongue without an actual burn. This condition is called burning tongue syndrome, which is also known as idiopathic glossopyrosis.
Underestimating the temperature of steam, hot food, or liquids can cause a burn on your tongue, mouth, or lips. Frequently eating and drinking extremely hot food and beverages without testing the temperature puts you at a higher risk for tongue burn. Burning tongue syndrome is a condition that can make you feel the sensation of a burn on your tongue for no apparent reason.
Postmenopausal women are at an increased risk for burning tongue syndrome. This sensation can be related to lower estrogen levels, which can cause a decline in the sensitivity of taste buds.
The two types of burning tongue syndrome are primary and secondary. In primary burning mouth syndrome, there is no known cause. Secondary burning mouth syndrome is likely caused by another medical condition.
Secondary burning mouth syndrome may be caused by:
- dry mouth, which is often a side effect of medications or a symptom of another medical condition
- thrush, which is an oral yeast infection
- oral lichen planus, which is an often chronic inflammation inside the mouth that’s caused by the immune system launching an attack on the mouth’s mucous membrane cells
- geographic tongue, which is a condition in which the tongue’s surface is missing some of its typical small bumps called papillae and instead has areas of red and sometimes raised patches that tend to disappear and then reappear in different areas of the tongue
- vitamin deficiencies
- extreme worry
- damage to the nerves
- allergic reaction to certain foods
- stomach acid that makes its way into the mouth from conditions such as gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD
- medications, such as those used for high blood pressure
- diabetes, hypothyroidism, and other endocrine disorders
- an imbalance of hormones, such as during menopause
- grinding the teeth, brushing the teeth too hard, using mouthwash too often, and other unhealthy oral habits
A burn of the tongue will look and feel different, depending on the degree of the burn:
- A first-degree burn involves the outermost layer of the tongue. You’ll experience pain, and your tongue may become red and swollen.
- A second-degree burn is more painful because both the outermost layer and the under layer of the tongue are injured. Blisters may form, and the tongue will appear red and swollen.
- A third-degree burn affects the deepest tissue of the tongue. The effect is white or blackened, burnt skin. You may also experience numbness or severe pain.
When the tongue becomes red or swollen, bumps on the tongue called papillae may disappear. This can give the tongue a smooth, rather than bumpy, appearance. Between these bumps are the taste buds. A burn may also lessen your sense of taste as well. But this is most often a temporary side effect unless the burn is severe.
In addition to feeling a burning sensation on the tongue, symptoms of burning tongue syndrome include:
- a tongue that feels normal in the morning but worsens throughout the day
- a daily repetition of burning symptoms
- a metallic or bitter taste that accompanies the burning sensation
- a feeling of having a dry mouth despite normal saliva production
If it’s not identified and treated properly, a severe burn of the tongue can become infected. You should always go to a doctor for second-degree and third-degree burns.
A burn of the tongue can also destroy taste buds, creating a lack of sensation where the burn occurred. This is typically a short-term complication because your taste buds regenerate about every two weeks.
If you have burning tongue syndrome, the severe, untreatable pain can sometimes lead to feelings of depression and anxiety.
Redness, swelling, and blistering are signs of a tongue burn. Your doctor can likely diagnose the condition by simply examining your tongue.
Burning tongue syndrome is diagnosed by excluding diseases and conditions with similar symptoms. Your doctor will ask you about your oral care habits to see if any habits, such as overusing mouthwash or brushing your teeth excessively hard, are causing your symptoms.
You may also receive any of the following tests to rule out other conditions:
- Blood tests are used to rule out nutritional deficiencies, hormone imbalances, and endocrine disorders.
- Oral samples are used to rule out oral conditions, such as thrush and oral lichen planus.
- Allergy tests are used to rule out burning of the tongue caused by allergies to food or additives.
- Saliva testing is used to rule out dry mouth.
- Imaging tests are used to rule out any other conditions that your doctor may suspect.
- Psychological surveys or questionnaires are used to see whether depression, anxiety, or stress may be the cause.
- Gastric reflux tests are used to see whether or not you have GERD.
Initial treatment for a burn of the tongue should include basic first aid. Your doctor should evaluate burns that exhibit the signs and symptoms of second-degree or third-degree burns.
To avoid infection and reduce pain in a first-degree burn on the tongue:
- Rinse the area well with cool water for a few minutes.
- Remove any dirt or particles that may be on the burn.
- Wet a clean cloth with cool water and hold it on top of the burn.
- Suck on ice chips or a popsicle to soothe the pain.
- Gargle with cool water or salt water.
- Avoid warm or hot liquids, which could irritate the burn.
- Take acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain and inflammation.
- Sprinkle a few grains of sugar on the tongue to relieve pain.
Consult your physician or dentist if the burn does not improve or becomes infected. Signs of infection may include:
- increased redness
- drainage of pus
If you’re suffering from burning tongue syndrome, you may find relief from the same types of remedies as those used to treat first-degree burns. There are no medically approved treatments specifically for burning tongue syndrome.
Sometimes, treating the conditions that may have caused secondary burning tongue syndrome can help. For example, if your current medication is causing dry mouth, your doctor may suggest another prescription. If stomach acid flows back into mouth because of acid reflux or GERD, your doctor may prescribe medications like omeprazole (Prilosec) to reduce your stomach’s production of acid.
You can prevent a tongue burn by testing the temperature of hot liquids and food before eating or drinking. Beverages or food heated in a microwave may not heat evenly, therefore you should use extra caution.
There’s no known way to prevent burning tongue syndrome. You may be able to reduce the burning sensation by reducing stress and avoiding tobacco and certain types of foods and drinks. These include carbonated beverages, acidic foods, and spicy foods.
A tongue burn can heal in about two weeks without specific treatment. However, some burns can last up to six weeks.
Burning tongue syndrome can persist for months or even years. According to the Cleveland Clinic, approximately 30 percent of individuals with burning tongue syndrome improve within three to five years without treatment.