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What causes a sore tongue?

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Common causes of sore tongue

Many things can cause a sore tongue. The most common causes include:

  • tongue injury, such as a bite or burn
  • a geographic tongue
  • a mouth ulcer
  • oral thrush
  • lichen planus

Tongue injury

If you bite your tongue or burn it with hot food or drink, you can develop a painful sore or swelling that usually lasts for a few days.

A tongue injury tends to heal on its own and usually needs no specific treatment.

While shallow tongue injuries tend to heal quickly, deeper tongue injuries can take up to three weeks to heal. If you have a deep tongue injury, see your doctor or go to hospital as you may need stitches to help the tongue heal properly.

Geographic tongue

What is geographic tongue?

Geographic tongue is a harmless condition in which irregular, smooth red patches and wavy white lines develop on the top and sides of the tongue. The condition is called geographic tongue because the patches often look like the outline of a map.

The patches may feel sore or burn, especially when you eat hot or spicy foods.

The exact cause of geographic tongue is unknown, but there is no specific treatment for it. However, you can minimise any discomfort by:

  • avoiding foods that make your tongue feel more sore
  • using protective, numbing or anti-inflammatory gels from a pharmacy

Mouth ulcer

What is a mouth ulcer?

Mouth ulcers are small, often painful sores that usually appear on the inner surface of the cheeks, lips or underside of the tongue. They are common and tend to go away on their own within a week or two.

You can have more than one ulcer at a time and they can change in size.

Some people develop a type of recurrent mouth ulcer known as aphthous ulcers or canker sores. These ulcers are not infectious and are not caused by an underlying illness.

Mouth ulcers usually heal on their own in time. Self-care measures can be used to help them heal and reduce their risk of returning. These self-care measures can involve avoiding things that irritate your mouth and using non-prescription treatments.

If you have an ulcer that has lasted longer than three weeks, see your doctor.

Read more about mouth ulcers.

Oral thrush

What is oral thrush?

Oral thrush is a common infection that is caused by a fungus called Candida. Oral thrush causes white patches (plaques) to develop in the mouth. It can make your tongue and gums feel sore.

Other symptoms of oral thrush include:

  • not tasting things properly
  • an unpleasant taste in the mouth
  • cracks at the corners of the mouth
  • difficulty eating and drinking

Oral thrush is not contagious in adults, but babies with thrush can pass the infection to their mothers through breastfeeding.

Some people are more likely to get thrush than others. Read about the risk factors and causes of oral thrush.

Oral thrush will not go away without treatment and it can spread to other parts of the body.

Oral thrush can be treated with antifungal mouth treatments, such as a mouth gel that you can buy from a pharmacy without a prescription.

Read more about how to treat oral thrush.

Lichen planus

Lichen planus is a long-term rash that can affect different parts of your body, including the inside of your mouth.

When it affects the mouth, lichen planus can cause a white lacy pattern and painful patches on the tongue, gums, and insides of the cheeks.

The cause of lichen planus is unknown, but the condition is not contagious.

Lichen planus in the mouth can last for several years. But once it goes away, it usually does not come back.

You can use several self-care methods to reduce tongue pain from lichen planus, including:

  • avoiding salty, spicy or acidic foods if they make your mouth sore
  • avoiding alcohol in food, drinks, and mouthwashes

Read more about lichen planus.

How to heal a sore tongue at home

If you have a sore tongue, try the following self-help tips at home:

  • avoid eating hot, spicy, salty, hard or acidic foods - these may irritate your tongue
  • rinse your mouth with warm salt water
  • avoid smoking and drinking alcohol
  • take painkillers
  • use a soft toothbrush to brush your teeth
  • use a toothpaste that doesn't contain the ingredient sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), which can irritate the tongue
  • drink cool drinks through a straw

If you have a sore tongue, a pharmacist may be able to give you advice on:

  • the cause
  • if you need to see a doctor or dentist
  • non-prescription treatments to help with pain and irritation

When to see a doctor or dentist about a sore tongue:

  • if you have persistent pain and you haven't accidentally bitten or burned your tongue
  • you have a growth or lump in your mouth or on your tongue or lips
  • you have an ulcer on your tongue, lips, or in the mouth lasting more than three weeks
  • you have a persistent and unexplained lump in the neck
  • you have a patch of dry, scaly skin on your lips that doesn't heal
  • you have white or red patches on your tongue or in your mouth
  • you have a dark spot in your mouth and have light-colored skin
  • your symptoms last longer than two weeks or improve and then return
  • you have mouth pain or trouble eating, swallowing or talking
  • your dentures don't fit well

Other causes of sore tongue

Other causes of a sore tongue include:

What is a sore tongue?

A sore or painful tongue is any kind of tongue discomfort, such as pain or a burning sensation. This symptom often has an obvious cause, such as a bite or burn. However, it can be a sign of a less obvious and more serious problem.

In many cases, a sore tongue is short-lived and easily treated.

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