Your tongue is a unique muscle because it’s only attached to bone on one (not both) ends. Its surface has papillae (small bumps). Between the papillae are taste buds.

Your tongue has many uses, it:

  • helps you chew and swallow, by moving the food in your mouth
  • allows you to taste salty, sweet, sour, and bitter flavors
  • assists you in word formation and speech

If your tongue is peeling, make an appointment to see your doctor or dentist. A peeling tongue could indicate one of a number of different conditions such as:

  • physical damage
  • thrush
  • canker sores
  • geographic tongue

If you’ve damaged the surface of your tongue, your body might be defensively getting rid of the damaged top layer — similar to your skin peeling after a damaging sunburn. Since the cells underneath aren’t accustomed to being exposed, your tongue might be more sensitive.

There are a number of ways to damage the top layer of your tongue, including:

  • drinking or eating something at a high enough temperature to burn
  • drinking or eating highly acidic food or drink
  • drinking or eating spicy food or drink
  • rubbing your tongue against a tooth with a sharp surface or a decayed tooth with sharp edges

Oral thrush — also known as oropharyngeal candidiasis or oral candidiasis — is a yeast infection of the inside of the mouth and tongue. Oral thrush is characterized by white lesions that might give the appearance of peeling.

To treat oral thrush, your doctor might recommend antifungal medication, such as nystatin.

Aphthous ulcers — also known as canker sores or aphthous stomatitis — are painful ulcers that appear in patterns. They’re classified as follows:

  • Minor. Typically 2 to 8 millimeters in size, minor ulcers commonly heal themselves in a couple of weeks.
  • Major. These ulcers are larger than 1 centimeter and may leave scars.
  • Herpetiform. These multiple, pinpoint-size ulcers may grow together into a single, larger ulcer.

Minor canker sores usually go away on their own. For larger ones, treatment options include:

  • Mouth rinses. Your doctor might recommend a mouth rinse with lidocaine or dexamethasone.
  • Topical treatment. Your doctor might recommend a paste, gel, or liquid such as hydrogen peroxide (Orajel), benzocaine (Anbesol), or fluocinonide (Lidex)
  • Oral medications. If your canker sores don’t respond to rinses and topical treatments, your doctor might recommend sucralfate (Carafate) or a steroid medication.

The primary symptom of geographic tongue is the appearance of discolored patches. The patches are typically painless and benign. They often reappear in different areas, which could give the impression that the tongue is peeling.

If your tongue problems are unexplained, severe, or don’t improve in a few days, have your doctor take a look. They can make a full diagnosis and recommend treatment options.

Other symptoms that should trigger a doctor’s appointment include:

  • high fever
  • extreme difficulty drinking or eating
  • appearance of new, larger sores
  • persistent recurring sores
  • persistent recurring pain
  • swelling of the tongue or trouble breathing
  • tongue pain that doesn’t improve with over-the-counter pain (OTC) medications or self-care measures

While you’re waiting to see your doctor, here are some steps that might provide relief:

  • Follow a bland diet.
  • Add vitamin C and B-complex to your diet.
  • Suck on an ice cube to reduce burning sensations.
  • Gargle with lukewarm salt water three times a day.
  • Avoid spicy, oily, deep fried, and junk food.
  • Avoid coffee, tea, and carbonated drinks.
  • Avoid high-temperature food and drinks.
  • Avoid alcohol consumption and smoking.
  • Brush your teeth regularly and maintaining proper oral hygiene.
  • Disinfect your dentures.

Treatment will depend on your doctor’s diagnosis of the underlying cause of the peeling skin (or what appears to be peeling skin) on your tongue.

If your tongue is peeling, it could be the result of damage to your tongue’s surface. It also might indicate an underlying condition such as oral thrush or geographic tongue. It could also be canker sores.

Although some of these causes can be handled with time and self-care, visit your doctor or dentist for a proper diagnosis. They can recommend a treatment option that will get you the best, safest, fastest results.