Why Is My Tongue Bleeding?

Medically reviewed by Daniel Murrell, MD on April 6, 2017Written by Susan York Morris on April 6, 2017

Overview

Most people will experience tongue bleeding from time to time. The location of your tongue makes it vulnerable to injury. Your tongue can be injured by man things, such as:

  • biting it
  • braces
  • dentures
  • crowns
  • broken teeth
  • radiation therapy
  • sharp foods

Usually, a little bleeding is nothing to be concerned about. But there are other reasons why your tongue might bleed. While most aren’t serious, some symptoms should be watched and may require a visit to your doctor.

Health conditions that can cause your tongue to bleed run the gamut from minor issues that heal by themselves to conditions that require medical treatment. Read more below for possible other causes.

Thrush or other yeast infections

Fungal infections, such as candidiasis or thrush, are common. Thrush is most often seen in babies, people with illnesses that affect their immune system, and people taking antibiotics.

Thrush and other oral yeast infections cause painful white or yellow-white spots or open sores in the mouth and the back of the throat. They can interfere with eating and swallowing. Under most circumstances, thrush is not serious. But a doctor should be notified when infants and people with compromised immune systems show symptoms of the condition.

Diagnosis

Oral fungal infections are usually diagnosed by visual examination.

Treatment

Antifungal creams are used to treat thrush and other fungal infections. If the infection is more widespread, your doctor may prescribe oral antifungal medications.

Oral herpes

Oral herpes is an infection caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 or II. Between 50 percent and 80 percent of adult Americans have the type I virus, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Oral herpes spreads by oral contact, usually through kissing or oral sex. You can also get it from contact with towels, glasses, or other objects shared with a person who has an active case of herpes.

Oral herpes goes through periods of dormancy and activation. The virus is most contagious during the active phase, when blisters are present.

Symptoms of oral herpes include:

  • redness and pain
  • rash or fluid-filled blisters that break open and become sores
  • clusters of blisters that grow together, forming a large lesion
  • itching, tingling, or burning sensation on or in the mouth

Diagnosis

Oral herpes can be difficult to diagnose because it often looks like other conditions. Although some doctors may diagnose herpes by visual examination, it’s more reliably diagnosed by taking a virus culture.

Treatment

Oral herpes can’t be cured, but medication can help control the symptoms. Medication can also lengthen how long the condition is dormant. Oral antiviral medications and topical creams, like docosanol (Abreva), are the primary treatment for oral herpes.

Blood vessel and lymph system malformations

Bleeding from the tongue can be caused by malformations of blood vessels, called hemangiomas. It also can happen because of lymph system abnormalities, such as lymphangiomas and cystic hygromas. These conditions are often found on the head and neck — and in the mouth.

In most cases, babies are born with these conditions. About 90 percent of these malformations will develop before children reach 2 years of age. Scientists believe they are caused by an error in development of the vascular system. More rarely, they occur because of an injury to women during pregnancy.

Diagnosis

Malformations of blood vessels and lymph system abnormalities are diagnosed by visual examination.

Treatment

Despite the alarming sound of their names, these tumors and lesions are almost never dangerous or cancerous. They usually don’t cause discomfort. If they’re not unsightly or troublesome, they don’t require treatment. When they do, doctors may prescribe steroids or remove them surgically.

Ulcers

Mouth ulcers are also called stomatitis or canker sores. They’re small, white sores that appear in your mouth, including on the tongue. Though they can be painful, they are rarely cause for alarm.

Sometimes, larger ulcers with red, circular edges can appear. These can be more painful and harder to get rid of.

Treatment

Mouth ulcers normally clear up without treatment within a couple of weeks. For relief of symptoms, your pharmacist can recommend over-the-counter mouthwashes and lozenges.

Cancer

Oral and oropharyngeal cancers often begin as a single mouth ulcer that doesn’t heal. Over time, the ulcer expands and may become hard. These ulcers can be painful and may bleed.

Cancer on the top of the tongue is oral cancer, or cancer of the mouth. If cancer is on the underside of the tongue, it’s considered an oropharyngeal cancer, which is a cancer of the middle throat.

When caught and treated early, these cancers can often be cured.

Some conditions and lifestyle choices place you at greater risk of getting oral or oropharyngeal cancer:

  • smoking or chewing tobacco
  • regular heavy drinking
  • having certain types of human papilloma virus (HPV), an extremely common virus that’s linked to sexual activity
  • having AIDS or HIV

Diagnosis

Oral and oropharyngeal cancers are usually diagnosed via biopsy of the affected tissue. If the biopsy reveals cancer, your doctor will conduct further tests to determine if the cancer has spread. These may include:

  • an endoscopy or nasoendoscopy, which let the doctor look more closely at your throat and airways
  • imaging tests such as X-rays, computed tomography (CAT or CT scan), or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

Treatment

Treatment options for these cancers may include:

  • surgery to remove the tumor and other areas where the cancer has spread
  • radiation therapy, which destroys cancer cells
  • chemotherapy, which uses drugs to destroy cancer cells

Home treatment

Home remedies may not cure whatever condition is causing your tongue to bleed, but they can provide relief. Here are some tips to ease a bleeding tongue:

When to see your doctor

Although mouth ulcers are rarely serious, see your doctor if you continue getting them. If you have a mouth ulcer that lasts longer than three weeks, you should ask your doctor to take a look, as well. Let your doctor know if you have continuing pain or if the wound develops pus or odors.

Prevention

Although the causes of bleeding from your tongue vary, there are general guidelines that will help prevent many conditions. Follow these tips:

  • Maintain good oral health by visiting your dentist regularly and brushing your teeth as instructed.
  • If you wear dentures, clean them every day as directed by your dentist.
  • Avoid smoking and heavy alcohol use.

Outlook

Most of the conditions that cause your tongue to bleed don’t pose a lasting threat to your health. However, it’s important to see your doctor if you have symptoms that don’t improve or if you have symptoms of oral cancer.

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