Tongue Problems

Written by Mary Ellen Ellis
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Are Tongue Problems?

Numerous problems can affect your tongue, such as pain, sores, swelling, changes in taste, unusual colors, and changes in texture. Many of these issues are not serious and are caused by minor infections or mouth injuries. However, sometimes your symptoms might be a sign of an underlying condition that requires medical treatment.

You can prevent many tongue problems by practicing good oral hygiene. If you are already suffering from tongue problems, some simple home care remedies can relieve your pain.

Types of Tongue Problems

There is a range of possible symptoms that you may experience related to your tongue. These include:

  • taste - partial or complete loss of taste or changes in your ability to taste sour, salty, bitter, or sweet flavors
  • movement - difficulty moving the tongue in the mouth
  • size - the tongue may be too large or may suddenly swell up in size
  • color - a change from the normal color of the tongue to either white, bright pink, black, brown, or a patchy color
  • pain - a painful or burning sensation either all over the tongue or only in certain spots
  • sores - white or red patches, which are often painful
  • texture - a furry or hairy appearance on the tongue

Causes of Tongue Problems

The specific symptoms you are experiencing will help to identify the cause of your tongue problem.

Pain is usually a result of an injury or infection. If you bite your tongue, you may develop a sore that can last for days and be very painful. A minor infection on the tongue is not uncommon and can cause pain and irritation. Inflamed papillae, or taste buds, are small, painful bumps that appear after an injury from a bite, or irritation from hot foods.

A canker sore is another common cause of pain on the tongue. This is a small, white sore that can arise for no apparent reason. Canker sores may be caused by a virus, in that case it is called a viral ulcer. In many cases the cause of a canker sore is unknown and referred to as an aphthous ulcer. These sores usually go away without any treatment.

Other, less common reasons for tongue pain include cancer, anemia, oral herpes, and irritating dentures or braces.

Neuralgia can also be a source of tongue pain. This is a very severe pain that occurs along a damaged nerve. Neuralgia results from aging, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, tumors, or for no obvious reason.

A burning sensation on the tongue may be a symptom in women who are postmenopausal. It can also be caused by exposure to irritants, such as by smoking.

A swollen tongue may be a symptom of a disease or medical condition, such as Down syndrome, tongue cancer, Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome (which leads to enlarged organs), an overactive thyroid, leukemia, strep throat, and anemia.

When the tongue swells very suddenly, the likely reason is an allergic reaction. This can result in difficulty breathing. In some cases, this is an emergency situation and the person affected should be taken to a medical professional right away.

A bright pink color on the tongue is most often caused by a deficiency in iron, folic acid, or vitamin B-12. It may also be an allergic reaction to gluten.

A white tongue is usually a result of smoking or drinking alcohol. White lines or bumps may be an inflammation called oral lichen planus. This could be due to poor oral hygiene, or from an underlying condition, such as hepatitis C or allergies.

A hairy tongue, when the tongue appears to be furry or hairy, is most likely caused by a course of antibiotics. It can also develop if you consume too much of an irritating substance, such as coffee or mouthwash, or if you smoke.

When to Seek Medical Help

You should make an appointment to see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment if your tongue problem:

  • is severe
  • is unexplained
  • persists for several days with no signs of improvement

What to Expect at a Doctor’s Appointment

During your appointment, your doctor will thoroughly examine your tongue and ask you several questions about your tongue and your symptoms. He or she will want to know how long you have had the symptoms, whether your ability to taste has changed, what kind of pain you have, if it is difficult to move your tongue, and if you have any other issues in your mouth.

If the exam and questions are not enough for your doctor to make a certain diagnosis, he or she may order some tests to find an underlying cause. Most likely, your doctor will want to take a sample of blood to test for or rule out various disorders that could be causing your tongue issues. Once you have a diagnosis, your doctor will recommend treatments for your specific problem.

Home Care for Tongue Problems

Some tongue problems can be prevented or relieved by practicing good dental hygiene. Brush and floss regularly, and see your dentist for routine checkups and cleanings.

If you have a canker sore or a sore caused by a mouth injury, you should avoid hot and spicy foods. Try to stick to cold beverages and bland, soft foods until the sore has healed. You may also try over-the-counter oral pain treatments.

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