While most people are aware that tooth pain can be a sign of a cavity or other dental problems, tongue pain can be a bit more of a mystery. So, what might cause your tongue to hurt, and what should you do about it?
Tongue pain could be caused by trauma if you’ve bitten your tongue. Other common causes include inflammation and food allergies. You may also have a nutrient deficiency, burning tongue syndrome, or ulcers. If the pain is persistent or results in swelling, visit a doctor immediately.
Let’s explore the common (and not so common) causes of tongue pain, when to visit a doctor, and how to reduce the risk of dental or medical issues that cause tongue pain.
What Could Be Causing My Tongue Pain?
If you’ve recently bitten your tongue, then that’s probably why you’re feeling tongue pain! However, if you’ve ruled out a tongue bite, your tongue pain may be caused by inflammation and oral thrush, ulcers, or exposure to certain foods.
These causes are quite common and are the most probable reasons why your tongue is painful. Let’s take a closer look at each one:
You’ve Bitten Your Tongue
If you’ve bitten your tongue before, you know how painful it can be. While it’s often unintentional, eating certain foods can increase the likelihood of biting your tongue. You’ll often feel a sharp, stinging pain when this happens, and the pain may last for several hours.
If you bit your tongue so hard that it bleeds, it’s best to avoid spicy and salty foods until it heals. Fortunately, most tongue bites heal quickly, so you won’t have to adjust your diet for too long. You can also drink cold water after biting your tongue to reduce the pain.
Sometimes, bones or other sharp objects in food can cause cuts and bruises on your tongue. This can be worse than biting your tongue, especially if you aren’t aware that your tongue is bruised.
If you’re not careful and don’t practice proper oral hygiene, the bruises and cuts may get infected, causing further damage. Rinsing with warm salt water can also help the healing process.
Inflammation and Oral Thrush
If you have small white spots on your tongue or your tongue appears to be swollen, then it’s likely caused by inflammation of the taste buds. This can be caused by eating spicy or acidic foods — or if the tongue is exposed to certain chemicals.
Oral thrush is another form of inflammation caused by yeast infections and is more common among elderly individuals and babies. Nonetheless, if you experience tongue pain after taking antibiotics or other medications, it’s usually a sign of oral thrush.
Fortunately, oral thrush is a temporary condition, and the inflammation will usually go away after a while. Avoid acidic or rough foods if you have a swollen tongue, as they may make the inflammation worse.
If the inflammation does persist, consult your physician or dentist for treatment.
Mouth ulcers are another major cause of tongue pain. These ulcers are often white, and they usually form on the gums. However, they may also form on your tongue and can cause persistent pain.
Ulcers often last for several days and can be quite painful, even when you don’t eat anything for a while.
While it isn’t clear what causes mouth ulcers, maintaining good oral hygiene will reduce the risk of ulcers forming on your tongue. Spicy foods, biting your tongue, smoking, and stress increase the chances of ulcers forming in your mouth.
If the pain is unbearable, you can consult your dentist for medication to help relieve the pain as the ulcer heals. Swishing with salt water or using an over-the-counter product, such as Kanka (on Amazon), can also be helpful.
If you’re allergic to certain foods, consuming them may cause blisters and pimples to form on your tongue. Some foods can cause tongue problems, even if you aren’t allergic to them, and you’ll have to eat them in moderation.
Foods that can cause tongue pain include:
- Spicy foods
- Burning hot food and drinks
- Sour foods
- Foods with high acidic content
While you can likely eat these foods in moderation, avoid consuming too much, or you may develop ulcers and other tongue problems. Acidic and sugary foods will also damage your teeth and upset the pH balance in your mouth.
It’s also a good idea to avoid eating foods that are too hot or cold, as you may burn your tongue. (Yes, foods that are too cold can also cause tongue burn!)
Less Common Causes of Tongue Pain
If your tongue pain is caused by ulcers or or a bad tongue bite, it’ll probably heal quickly, and there’s usually no need for concern. However, if the tongue pain is caused by an infection, burning mouth syndrome, certain medications, or a vitamin deficiency, you’ll have to consult a doctor for treatment.
These less common causes can be chronic, and the pain may worsen if you don’t address it. Let’s look at some of these causes in detail:
Burning Mouth Syndrome
If you feel a burning pain instead of a stinging one, you may have what’s known as burning mouth syndrome. This condition can be persistent and isn’t necessarily triggered by foods or other habits.
Medical conditions such as diabetes, thyroid problems, or a nutrient deficiency can cause burning mouth syndrome, and consuming certain foods can worsen the burning sensation. Burning mouth syndrome can also be a side effect of geographic tongue, which can be an inflammatory response but is usually harmless.
If you feel a burning sensation in your mouth that doesn’t go away after a few days or gets progressively worse, visit a doctor.
Reactions to Medication
Certain medications can cause you to experience tongue pain at regular intervals. Some antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications can cause mouth ulcers and other conditions that may result in tongue pain.
If you experience any side reactions or you get mouth ulcers after using certain medication, inform your doctor immediately.
A vitamin deficiency can result in several oral problems, including tongue pain and mouth ulcers. For example, a lack of zinc is linked to burning mouth syndrome, while a vitamin B deficiency can cause your tongue to turn red and be more sensitive to certain foods.
When Should I See a Doctor?
If you’ve just bitten your tongue and you’re experiencing mild pain, there’s no need to visit your doctor. However, if you notice changes in tongue color, a lack of taste, pimples, or a swollen tongue accompanied by pain, you should visit your doctor for a checkup.
Often, these tongue problems are an indication of a worse underlying medical condition, and visiting your doctor can help you get an early diagnosis.
If any lesion lasts more than two weeks, then it’s also time to visit a professional.
Keeping up with your twice yearly dental visits is great way to keep tongue issues at bay. Your dentist and hygienist should be performing an oral cancer screening at each visit, and this check is key to catching any suspicious lesions early on.
Establishing Good Tongue Care Habits
While you can’t always prevent tongue pain caused by underlying medical conditions, you can reduce the risk of major tongue problems through proper tongue care.
Here are some tongue care habits to follow for good oral hygiene:
- Brush your tongue when you’re brushing your teeth. Also, brush at least twice a day.
- Don’t forget to floss daily to clean bacteria and plaque in hard-to-reach areas.
- Avoid eating foods that are too spicy or sour or foods that contain high levels of acid.
- Visit a dentist twice a year as part of your routine checkup schedule.