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What causes tongue swelling? 9 possible conditions

What Is Tongue Inflammation?

Your tongue is a vital muscle that aids in the digestion of food and helps you to speak properly. While many of us do not usually think about the health of our tongues, a number of conditions can affect this muscle. Tongue inflammation is one such condition.

Tongue inflammation occurs when the tongue becomes swollen and possibly discolored. This can make the tongue appear as if it is smooth. Tongue inflammation is also known as:

  • tongue infection
  • smooth tongue
  • glossodynia
  • glossitis
  • burning tongue syndrome

What Causes Tongue Inflammation?

Tongue inflammation rarely occurs by itself. If you develop this condition, it is often associated with other health problems. Examples of health issues associated with tongue inflammation include:

Allergic Reactions

Tongue inflammation may occur if you have an allergic reaction to toothpaste, mouthwash, dentures, denture creams, or retainers. Allergic reactions to certain medications may also cause this condition.

Sjögren Syndrome

This condition results in the destruction of the saliva glands. When this occurs, you may develop dry mouth, which in turn can lead to tongue inflammation.


Burns inside the mouth or trauma may cause tongue inflammation.

Vitamin Deficiency

Low levels of vitamin B12 or iron may cause tongue inflammation.

Skin Conditions

Certain skin conditions may cause tongue inflammation, including:

  • oral lichen planus (an inflammatory disease causing sores, swelling, and redness)
  • syphilis
  • pemphigus (a blistering auto-immune disease)

Yeast Infections

Yeast infections in the mouth (thrush) can cause tongue inflammation.

Ingesting Irritants

Alcohol, spicy foods, or tobacco may irritate the mouth and cause tongue inflammation.

What Are the Symptoms of Tongue Inflammation?

Symptoms of tongue inflammation will depend on the severity of your condition and the health condition causing it. Common symptoms associated with tongue inflammation include:

  • problems chewing, swallowing, or speaking
  • a sore or tender tongue
  • changes in the color of your tongue (pale or red)
  • swelling of the tongue
  • severe swelling of the tongue that blocks your airway

Some people with this condition will not develop pain. Their only symptom may be a swollen tongue.

How Is Tongue Inflammation Diagnosed?

To diagnose tongue inflammation, your doctor will examine your tongue. Examination may show that papillae, small fingerlike projections typically found on the tongue, are missing. Your doctor may also note swelling of the tongue.

If you have symptoms of tongue inflammation, your doctor may ask you about your health history and recent trauma to the mouth or tongue in an effort to determine the underlying cause. He or she may ask about new toothpastes, new foods, or other triggers that might have caused a sudden onset.

If there is no obvious cause for your symptoms, your doctor may perform other tests to determine the cause of your tongue inflammation. Blood tests are commonly done to see if you have a vitamin deficiency or anemia (low iron levels). They can also identify diseases like syphilis.

In rare cases where oral lichen planus is suspected, your doctor may take a tissue sample (biopsy) for laboratory testing.

How Is Tongue Inflammation Treated?

Treatment of tongue inflammation focuses on two goals. First, treatment of tongue inflammation should reduce the inflammation and pain. Second, treatment of tongue inflammation should target the underlying health condition causing this problem.

Your doctor may prescribe an anti-inflammatory drug or suggest an over-the-counter remedy like ibuprofen to help minimize inflammation and reduce pain while the underlying cause is treated.

To treat the condition causing tongue inflammation, your doctor may:

  • prescribe medications such as antibiotics, antifungals, or antimicrobials
  • recommend dietary changes
  • prescribe supplements such as iron or B12 vitamins
  • recommend lifestyle changes such as stopping smoking and avoiding alcohol

Good oral hygiene may also help reduce symptoms of tongue inflammation. Good oral hygiene includes:

  • brushing your teeth every day
  • flossing your teeth every day
  • having your teeth examined and cleaned on a regular basis

When Should You Contact Your Doctor?

If you develop symptoms of tongue inflammation, you may not need to call your doctor. Swelling and inflammation of the tongue typically resolve after several days. If symptoms are still present after 10 days, contact your doctor. You should also contact your doctor if you have trouble swallowing, breathing or speaking.

Severe swelling of the tongue that blocks the airway is a medical emergency. If this occurs, you should seek emergency medical attention.

Article Sources:

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.