When your mouth is numb
If you have a numb mouth you might experience it as a loss of sensation or feeling in your mouth. This can happen on your tongue, gums, lips, or in more than one area.
You may have a tingling or prickling (pins and needles) feeling on your lips or inside your mouth.
The medical term for numbness or tingling anywhere in the body is paresthesia. It usually involves pressure, irritation, over-excitement, or damage to the nerves.
A numb mouth by itself is usually nothing serious and you may not need treatment. In other cases, treatment depends on the cause of the numbness.
We look at 8 possible causes for a numb mouth and what you can do for each.
Biting your tongue, lip, or the side of your mouth while chewing food can cause mouth numbness. Eating or drinking something too hot or too spicy can also lead to a numb mouth.
A cavity in your tooth can also cause numbness in part of your mouth. This happens because the nerves in the mouth or lips may be slightly damaged or inflamed (swollen).
Numbness due to a minor injury in the mouth or on the lips will go away on its own as the area heals. This may take a few days or less.
For a severe injury or burn, you should seek medical attention. If you believe you have a cavity, you should see a dentist.
An allergic reaction may cause mouth numbness and tingling lips. This may be due to breathing in pollen or eating a food that you’re allergic to.
Oral allergy syndrome, sometimes called pollen-fruit allergy syndrome, is when you become allergic to pollen on a fruit or vegetable, as well as the fruit or vegetable itself.
People with seasonal allergies are more likely to have this. Younger children are less likely, and those that do usually grow out of it.
This type of allergy only causes symptoms in and around the mouth. The numbness is a local allergic reaction. This means that the immune system overreacts and thinks the food or other substance is harmful.
Allergy symptoms are then triggered, such as:
- runny nose
Most people have mild symptoms that go away on their own.
Avoiding the food allergen usually gets rid of the mouth numbness and other symptoms. Your doctor may prescribe anti-allergy medicines if needed.
Not getting enough vitamin B-12 or folic acid (vitamin B-9) can trigger a number of symptoms including mouth numbness, pain, and burning. It can also cause mouth ulcers.
This happens because these vitamins are needed to make red blood cells, which carry oxygen and energize the body. B vitamins are also important for nerve health.
Treatment for a vitamin B-12 or folic acid deficiency is very important. If it goes untreated, it can cause permanent nerve damage.
A doctor or nutritionist may recommend foods that are rich in vitamin B-12, folic acid, and other B vitamins. You’ll also likely need daily supplements of these vitamins.
In some cases, your doctor may prescribe vitamin B-12 injections. This can help boost nutrition if your body can’t properly absorb vitamin B-12 and other nutrients.
Diabetes and low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) can lead to a number of symptoms including mouth and lip numbness.
This may happen because very low blood sugar levels affect the brain. The nerves that work to send signals from the mouth, tongue, and lips may be temporarily damaged or not functioning.
Other symptoms of a drop in blood sugar include:
Low blood sugar is first treated by drinking a sugary drink or eating a sugary food.
If you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, your doctor may also change your medications to make sure they’re not too high and lowering your blood sugar too much.
Changing your diet to include more fiber-rich foods that help balance blood sugar levels will also help.
Burning mouth syndrome or BMS is common in middle-age and elderly women, especially during menopause.
Around 2 percent of U.S. people are estimated to have this syndrome. Women are almost seven times more likely to have BMS than men.
It typically causes a burning or sore sensation on the tip and sides of the tongue, the roof of the mouth, and on the lips. It can also cause a numb mouth.
The cause of burning mouth syndrome isn’t known. It’s thought to be a type of nerve pain.
Seizures due to epilepsy or brain tumors may cause a numb mouth. This can affect the tongue, gums, and lips.
These serious conditions will cause other symptoms in addition to mouth numbness.
Drugs or surgery to treat the cause of the seizures will stop or reduce other symptoms including mouth numbness.
A stroke can temporarily block blood flow to your brain. This can cause a number of serious symptoms.
A stroke can also damage the nerves that carry signals to your face, mouth, tongue, and throat. This may cause your mouth to go numb. But a stroke typically causes more than one symptom on the face.
Facial symptoms may include:
- drooping and numbness on one side of the face and mouth
- slurred speech
- blurred vision
- difficulty swallowing
Seek immediate care
A stroke is a medical emergency. Anyone who’s having a stroke must get urgent medical care. Some stroke symptoms clear up after some time. Others may be permanent. Physical therapy may help improve some stroke symptoms such as muscle weakness on one or both sides of the body.
Mouth and throat cancers can trigger a number of symptoms including numbness in the mouth. The numb feeling may be throughout the mouth and lip area, or in patchy areas.
This happens when cancer cells cause nerve or blood vessel damage in the mouth.
Other symptoms of mouth cancer include:
- soreness or irritation in the tongue or mouth area
- red or white patches in the mouth or on the lips
- thickened spots on the tongue and inside the mouth
- a sore jaw
- difficulty chewing or swallowing
Treatment includes chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.
In some cases, mouth numbness may be permanent if a large part of the mouth or tongue is damaged. Surgery for the treatment of mouth cancer may also cause numbness in the mouth.
Mouth numbness can sometimes be a side effect of certain medications and of treatments for certain medical conditions.
Talk to your pharmacist or doctor about any symptoms that you’re worried about or that are interfering with your normal activity.
Treatments that may cause mouth numbness include:
- bisphosphonate therapy (Actonel, Zometa, Fosamax, and Boniva)
- surgery in the mouth or on the face, head, or neck
You may not have any other mouth symptoms except for numbness of the mouth or lip.
If you do have other symptoms these might include:
- itching around the mouth and lips
- a prickling feeling
- swelling of the lips, tongue, and gums
- throat itching and swelling
- soreness or pain
- a red tongue (glossitis)
- red or white patches on the mouth or lips
- hardened or rough areas in the mouth
- mouth ulcers
There are several over-the-counter ointments and remedies to treat mouth injuries, burns, or sores that may cause numbness.
- a salt-water rinse
- a cold compress
- acetaminophen and other pain killers
- numbing creams (like Orajel)
- antiseptic mouth washes
- antihistamine liquid medications
If you have frequent mouth numbness and other symptoms, keep a daily journal of all your symptoms. Record the time, what you were doing, and if you were eating or drinking anything at the time.
This will help your doctor find out what’s causing your mouth to feel numb.
See a doctor or dentist if you have mouth numbness that lasts longer than a couple of hours or continues on-and-off for several days.
Tell your doctor if you have any other symptoms in your mouth or anywhere in your body. In most cases, mouth numbness on its own is not a sign of a serious illness.
What will a doctor check?
Your doctor will check the inside of your mouth. This may involve a careful examination of the lips, tongue, gums, roof, and sides of the mouth and throat.
If you have any patches on your lips, tongue, or anywhere in the mouth, you may need a biopsy. This involves numbing the area and removing a tiny piece of the tissue or skin. This sample is sent to a lab to be analyzed.
You may also need a blood test to find out if the numbness is linked to a change in hormones, blood sugar levels, or low levels of nutrients.
If you have a chronic condition such as diabetes, your doctor will check to see how well your blood sugar levels are balanced.
In rare cases, especially if you have other symptoms, your doctor may recommend a scan of the brain, head, face, or throat. This may show if there are any lesions or tumors in the mouth, throat, or brain.
- A numb mouth is usually not anything serious.
- See a doctor or dentist if your mouth numbness lasts longer than a couple of hours or continues for several days.
- Other symptoms and an examination by a doctor can help to identify the cause.
- For common, minor mouth injuries, conservative treatment at home is often all that’s needed.