Small ulcers on your mouth are fairly common, affecting most of the population at some point in their life. One of these can also occur on your tongue, but several other things may cause a tongue ulcer.
Depending on your ulcer's type, color, size, and other characteristics, the underlying cause may be as simple and treatable as a cold sore or as serious as cancer.
In this article, we'll cover everything you need to know about tongue ulcers to help you prepare for your doctor's appointment or to help you decide whether medical attention is necessary.
What Is A Tongue Ulcer?
A tongue ulcer is an open sore on the surface of your tongue. It can be caused by irritation from a sharp tooth, dental work, or biting and burning your tongue. Some other causes include viral infections (such as herpes on the tongue), vitamin deficiencies, food allergies, mouth cancer, and certain medical conditions.
Often, tongue ulcers are white or yellow and can be uncomfortable. Depending on their severity and the underlying cause, your doctor may offer treatments to help reduce inflammation and lessen discomfort.
In serious cases, tongue ulcers can become infected and even spread to other parts of your body, which is why it's essential to visit a doctor if you suspect an infection or the ulcer doesn't heal on its own.
Symptoms Of Tongue Ulcers
When you have an ulcer on your tongue, you can expect one or more of the following symptoms:
- White or yellow sore on the tongue
- Pain when eating, swallowing, or talking
- Swollen and inflamed gums
- Blisters on other parts of the mouth, including your cheeks, lips, and palate
- Difficulty moving your tongue and speaking clearly
- Unpleasant taste in the mouth
- Redness around the ulcer
- Burning sensation or pain in the area of the ulcer
- A tingling sensation on your tongue
- Bad breath
In most cases, you will experience multiple of the above symptoms.
What Are The Types Of Tongue Ulcers?
Depending on the type of tongue ulcer you have, your prognosis will look significantly different. Let's take a look at the different kinds of ulcers and how you can spot them.
Canker sores are the most common and least harmful kind of ulcer on your tongue. They look like small white or yellow spots on your tongue and can be painful. They often disappear in a few days without professional treatment, but if they stay for more than two weeks, you should see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment.
About one in five people get canker sores regularly, and they start showing up between ages 10 and 20. They affect most people at least a few times per year.
Cold sores are caused by either strain of the herpes simplex virus and look like small blisters on your tongue. They can be extremely painful, and the sores will stay for up to 10 days before they start healing.
If you have herpetic sores, they will usually show up around the edges of your mouth. Your lips and the closure between your upper and lower lips are the most common sites.
Herpetic sores can be spread through contact with infected saliva and skin-to-skin contact, but they go away on their own. Unfortunately, outbreaks can be unpredictable.
Candidiasis (Oral Thrush)
Oral thrush is a fungal infection caused by an overgrowth of the Candida fungus. It usually affects younger children, but adults can get it too.
Signs and symptoms of oral thrush include creamy white lesions on your tongue or inside your cheeks that look like cottage cheese. These yellow tongue patches may be slightly raised and have a slight red border around them.
They cause burning and soreness in your mouth. If left untreated, they can spread to the roof of your mouth, gums, and tonsils.
Oral thrush is treated with antifungal medications, such as nystatin or fluconazole.
Cuts, Burns, And Injuries In The Mouth
Whether you've just had dental work, burned your tongue, or accidentally bit it, any kind of injury or trauma can cause an ulcer.
Most of the time, a tongue injury is caused by one of the following:
- Accidentally drinking a hot liquid (e.g., coffee, tea)
- Accidentally biting your tongue or lips while talking or eating
- Rough brushing, flossing, or using a toothpick in your mouth
- Oral piercing
- Injury from dental work
- Involuntary tongue movements (e.g., those caused by seizures or tongue movement problems)
If an ulcer develops due to an injury, it typically resolves itself within 10 days.
However, if you notice any unusual symptoms (such as fever, increased pain, and swelling) or the ulcer doesn't heal on its own, it may be infected or a sign of something more serious.
Mouth cancer is incredibly serious—the longer it sits and grows in your mouth, the more time it has to spread. Tumors in your mouth can cause serious health issues, so it's important to be aware of the warning signs.
Tongue cancer may cause a sore on your tongue that won't heal or go away. It may also cause visible bumps, sores, and ulcers that don't seem to have an obvious cause. If you notice any unusual growths on your tongue, your tongue turns purple, or you notice any changes to the size and texture of your tongue, you should contact a doctor immediately.
Each year, only 1% of new cancer patients are diagnosed with tongue cancer, but tobacco use puts you at greater risk of developing it.
Common Causes Of Tongue Ulcers
Tongue ulcers can be caused by many things, including trauma or injury to the tongue, infections (viral, bacterial, and fungal), cancer, and autoimmune conditions.
Most ulcers are benign and disappear on their own in a few days—but if an ulcer persists for more than two weeks or is accompanied by other symptoms (such as fever, weight loss, and swelling of the tongue), you should see a doctor.
Here are the most common causes of tongue ulcers:
Biting Your Tongue
According to the Oral Health Foundation, biting your tongue is the most common cause of a tongue ulcer.
It can happen at any time, accidentally (and it probably has). Most people accidentally bite their tongues when chewing food or gum, but it can also happen while you are talking.
Those who have wisdom teeth growing in their mouths may find themselves biting their tongue more often, as the teeth can protrude into the area and crowd the back area where parts of the tongue rest.
If you bite your tongue, it will usually form a small cut and swell a little bit. In less serious cases, it will look red and swollen. If you bleed, it will form a scab and a white lesion.
Food allergies are another cause of tongue ulcers. When you eat food you are allergic to, your body releases histamine as a reaction. This can cause the tongue to swell and form small ulcers or hives.
Allergic reactions can be caused by foods such as peanuts, dairy products, gluten, wheat, eggs, and shellfish. In some cases, even natural foods like strawberries or citrus fruits can trigger an allergy.
You might also be allergic to certain medications or chemicals, which can cause an itchy tongue or ulcers.
Certain nutritional deficiencies is another cause of tongue ulcers, such as a lack of iron or vitamin B12. Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world and can lead to a condition known as anemia, which causes fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, and tongue ulcers.
Vitamin B12 is an important vitamin for the production of red blood cells and also helps with nerve function. A lack of this nutrient can cause glossitis—a condition that causes the tongue to swell, become inflamed, and turn red and irritated.
Injuries From Dental Work
Even when dental work isn't invasive, it's possible to suffer injuries or damage to your tongue. Sharp instruments used during dental procedures can cut the tongue, and dental wax or other materials used in a procedure can irritate it and cause ulcers.
For intrusive procedures like tooth extractions and implants, your surgeon will place something on your mouth to protect your tongue from debris and dental instruments. But injury can still sometimes occur.
Braces Or Retainers
Especially if you were just fitted for braces or a new teeth retainer, you might have the urge to thrust your tongue around it. When a foreign object is inserted into your mouth, this is a fairly natural reaction.
Bur braces and retainers have wires and edges that can easily cut and scrape your tongue if you aren't careful. That's why many new braces patients (and those fitted for a retainer) find themselves with a temporarily ulcerated tongue.
Poorly Fitting Dentures
If you wear dentures, how they fit can have significant implications for your overall oral health. If they fit poorly, you might notice sores, ulcers, and bleeding. Poorly fitting dentures can cause friction on the soft tissues of your mouth, leading to an increase in these uncomfortable issues.
If your dentures don't fit you properly, it will usually be obvious. You will either have difficulty speaking, eating, or drinking, or you will experience pain and sores.
Burns From Eating Hot Foods
If you bite into something too hot, such as a piece of pizza or soup, you might burn your tongue. This can cause pain, redness, and even blisters that can become ulcers. To prevent this kind of injury to the tongue, let hot foods cool for a few minutes before taking a bite.
The same problem can happen if you drink liquids that are too hot, including soups, coffee, and tea. The temperature of your drink should be lukewarm or slightly cooler than that to avoid burning your tongue.
Smoking And Vaping
Tobacco use causes irritation and ulceration on the tongue. Smoking, in particular, is a major culprit when it comes to damage to the soft tissues of the mouth. In addition to causing cancer, smoking leads to gums, throat, and tongue ulceration by causing dry mouth.
Vaping harms your oral health, and it can burn the inside of your mouth. And since vaping liquids contain nicotine, the same risks associated with smoking are present.
Eating Acidic Or Spicy Foods
Eating too many acidic foods or spicy foods can lead to an increased risk of tongue ulcers. Eating acidic foods like oranges, lemons, limes, tomatoes, and pineapple can irritate the tongue if eaten in excess.
You may also burn your tongue from trying a natural teeth whitening fad that involves an acidic fluid like lemon juice or apple cider vinegar. These trends can do more harm than good for your teeth, and one residual effect could be tongue sores or ulcers.
Brushing Your Teeth With A Hard-Bristled Toothbrush
Dental professionals recommend using a soft-bristled toothbrush because it is less abrasive on your teeth and gums. But if you use too hard of a toothbrush, the bristles can scratch and cause irritation when you clean your tongue.
Using the wrong kind of toothbrush can also cause trauma to other parts of your mouth, like your sensitive gums. Invest in an ADA-approved toothbrush with soft bristles to avoid this type of damage.
Medical Conditions That Cause Tongue Ulcers
Sometimes, your susceptibility to tongue ulcers is out of your control. If you have one of the following medical conditions, you might be more prone to developing sores on your tongue.
Diabetes can dramatically impact oral health by causing dry mouth and increasing your risk of infection. This can make it easier to develop ulcers, as the lack of saliva makes it harder for bacteria to be cleared away. Sometimes, tongue ulcers can also be a sign of undiagnosed diabetes.
Inflammatory Bowel Disorder (IBD)
IBD is a chronic inflammation of the bowels that can lead to ulcers in the mouth. It can cause pain, burning sensations, and sores on the tongue.
Although the root cause of mouth sores associated with IBD remains unclear, they do tend to appear when inflammation and stress levels are high.
Additionally, deficiencies in essential nutrients such as B12, iron, folate, or zinc could be a factor. Certain food items, including spices, may contribute to their emergence.
Celiac disease (gluten sensitivity) is an autoimmune disorder that can cause damage to the small intestine due to a reaction to gluten.
Since people with celiac disease can't eat many of the gluten-containing foods that most people include in their diets, they can easily become deficient in some nutrients. This can contribute to the formation of ulcers in the mouth, including on the tongue.
Other autoimmune disorders, including HIV/AIDS and lupus, cause numerous symptoms that may include tongue ulcers.
People with autoimmune disorders are more likely to suffer from these sores because their bodies attack healthy cells, which weakens the immune system.
Behcet’s disease is a rare, chronic disorder that causes inflammation in various parts of the body. It primarily affects the blood vessels, means that it affects the small vessels in the mouth. In some cases, the sores may be accompanied by fever, fatigue, headache, or joint pain.
How To Get Rid Of A Tongue Ulcer
Tongue ulcers tend to heal on their own in a few days or weeks, depending on the severity of the ulcer. Still, you need to take steps to reduce discomfort and promote healing.
Here are a few ways to speed up your recovery from tongue ulcers:
1. Clean Water
If you don't have access to anything else, clean water can help reduce inflammation and wash away bacteria. Make sure your drinking water is free of contaminants and bacteria, and ensure you don't rinse your mouth with tap water if you can't filter it first.
2. Salt Water Rinse
Mix 1 teaspoon of salt in a cup of warm water, and rinse your mouth with it twice or thrice daily until the ulcer heals. The salt helps reduce inflammation, eliminates bacteria, and accelerates healing.
3. Baking Soda Dissolved In Water
Baking soda has natural antibacterial properties that can help reduce the size of your ulcer. To use it, mix 1 teaspoon of baking soda with a cup of warm water and swish the mixture inside your mouth for 10 seconds before spitting it out. Do this twice or three times daily for best results.
What Are Ways To Treat Tongue Ulcers At Home?
If you want to get rid of a tongue ulcer at home, you can try a few different methods and home remedies.
If you want to go the holistic route, here are the best home remedies to try:
- Milk of magnesia: This can help reduce the size of your ulcer and promote healing. Simply apply some milk of magnesia to a cotton swab and dab it onto your ulcer, avoiding contact with the healthy parts of your tongue.
- Hydrogen peroxide: This antiseptic can kill bacteria in and around your ulcers. To use it, mix one part hydrogen peroxide with two parts water and apply it to your ulcer using a cotton swab. Allow it to sit for 10-15 minutes, then rinse your mouth with warm water.
- Tea tree oil: This is another effective antiseptic that can help reduce infection and promote healing. Apply some tea tree oil to a cotton swab and dab it onto your ulcer.
- Coconut oil: This can help reduce inflammation and pain around the affected area. You can apply some coconut oil directly to your tongue and massage it around the ulcer for temporary relief.
Antimicrobial Or Saline Mouthwash
Saline mouthwash can help reduce inflammation and bacteria in the mouth, which may accelerate healing. Antimicrobial rinses that contain chlorhexidine or cetylpyridinium can also be helpful in disinfecting and limiting bacterial buildup around the site.
OTC Corticosteroid Lozenges
Corticosteroids are a type of medication that is used to reduce inflammation in the body. They work by suppressing the immune system and blocking certain hormones that cause inflammation. They come in many forms, including topical creams, injections, pills, inhalers, and lozenges.
Corticosteroid lozenges are best for treating tongue ulcers, as they are designed to dissolve in the mouth and provide immediate relief.
OTC Pain Medications
Over-the-counter pain medications are often helpful for reducing the discomfort caused by tongue ulcers. Ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, and acetaminophen can all help reduce inflammation and relieve pain associated with tongue ulcers.
Tongue Ulcer Prevention Tips
The best way to prevent tongue ulcers is to practice good oral hygiene and avoid foods or habits that can irritate your tongue. Here are the best ways to prevent ulcers from forming on your tongue:
Switching To A Mild Toothpaste
The type of toothpaste you use can play a significant role in the health of your tongue. If you're using an abrasive toothpaste with lots of chemicals (like a whitening toothpaste), consider switching to a milder version.
Cleaning Your Tongue Properly
Too much pressure when brushing your teeth can cause irritation on your tongue and lead to ulcers. If you aren't already using one, switching to a soft-bristled toothbrush can help you brush more gently.
Cutting Down On Acidic Foods And Drinks
Acidic foods and beverages can cause irritation on your tongue, leading to ulcers. Avoiding citrus fruits, vinegar, coffee, and other acidic foods or drinks is a good way to reduce your risk of developing ulcers.
Want to learn more? These are the questions our customers ask us the most.
Are Ulcers On The Tongue Serious?
Ulcers on the tongue are usually not serious. If you have one, you can expect it to go away within a few days. If it lasts longer than two weeks or is accompanied by other symptoms (such as fever, difficulty swallowing, or facial swelling), it’s best to seek medical attention.
What Does A Cancerous Tongue Look Like?
Depending on the stage and type of cancer, a tongue may look swollen or discolored. It can also have open sores (ulcers), red patches, white patches, lumps, or thickening of the surrounding tissue. If you notice any changes in your tongue that don’t go away after two weeks, this is cause for concern.
Does Stress Cause Mouth Ulcers?
Stress can be a contributing factor in the development of mouth ulcers. Stress can weaken your immune system and make you more vulnerable to infections. It can also lead to changes in oral hygiene habits, which may increase your risk of developing ulcers.
How Long Do Tongue Ulcers Last?
Tongue ulcers typically take 7-10 days to heal. They can sometimes last longer, depending on the cause and other factors, but most tongue ulcers are caused by canker sores or accidental injury to your mouth, meaning they are from causes that aren't serious.
What Infection Causes Tongue Ulcers?
Multiple infections can cause tongue ulcers, including:
- Viral infections, such as herpes simplex virus type 1 or 2
- Bacterial infections, such as strep throat
- Fungal infections, such as oral thrush
How Do You Get Rid Of A Tongue Ulcer Overnight?
There is no way to get rid of a tongue ulcer overnight. However, you can take steps to reduce the pain and discomfort associated with the ulcer. OTC medications such as ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, and acetaminophen can help relieve pain and inflammation. Corticosteroid lozenges are also effective in providing relief from tongue ulcers.