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Your tongue is a vital and versatile muscle that aids in the digestion of food and helps you speak properly. You may not often think about the health of your tongue, but there are 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’s smooth. Other names for tongue inflammation include tongue infection, smooth tongue, glossodynia, glossitis, and burning tongue syndrome.
Tongue inflammation rarely occurs by itself. It often occurs within the context of other health problems.
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.
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 or trauma inside the mouth may cause tongue inflammation.
Pathologically low levels of vitamin B-12 or iron may cause tongue inflammation.
Certain skin conditions may cause tongue inflammation. Oral lichen planus is an inflammatory disease causing sores, swelling, and redness. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection that can present as a body rash. Pemphigus is an autoimmune disease that causes skin blistering.
Yeast infections in the mouth, also known as thrush, can cause tongue inflammation.
Alcohol, spicy foods, or tobacco may irritate the mouth and cause tongue inflammation.
Symptoms of tongue inflammation depend on the severity of your condition and the health condition causing it. You may experience problems with chewing, swallowing, or speaking. You may have a sore, tender, or swollen tongue. Your tongue may change color and appear pale or red.
A very serious symptom of tongue inflammation is when you experience severe swelling. This can block your airway. Call 911 immediately if you or someone else is experiencing severe swelling.
Some people with this condition won’t feel pain. Their only symptom may be a swollen tongue.
Your doctor will examine your tongue to diagnose tongue inflammation. Examination may show that papillae are missing. Papillae are small, fingerlike projections typically found on the tongue. Your doctor may also note swelling of the tongue.
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. They may ask about new toothpastes, new foods, or other triggers that might have caused a sudden onset of inflammation.
If there’s no obvious cause for your symptoms, your doctor may perform other tests to determine the cause of your tongue inflammation. Blood tests are commonly used to see if you have a vitamin deficiency or anemia (low iron levels). They can also identify diseases like syphilis.
In rare cases where your doctor suspects oral lichen planus, your doctor may take a biopsy, or tissue sample, for laboratory testing.
Treatment of tongue inflammation focuses on two goals. First, it 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. These medications can help minimize inflammation and reduce pain while your doctor treats the underlying condition.
To treat the condition causing tongue inflammation, your doctor may prescribe medications such as antibiotics, antifungals, or antimicrobials. They may also recommend dietary or lifestyle changes such as stopping smoking and avoiding alcohol. Your doctor may also recommend you take supplements such as iron or vitamin B-12.
Good oral hygiene may also help reduce symptoms of tongue inflammation. Be sure to brush and floss your teeth every day. Have your teeth examined and cleaned by a dental professional on a regular basis.
You may or may not need to call your doctor if you have symptoms of tongue inflammation. 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.
Written by: Darla Burke
Medically reviewed on: Feb 22, 2016: Steve Kim, MD
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