Tongue problems include pain, swelling, or a change in how the tongue looks.
The tongue is mainly made up of muscles. It is covered with a mucus membrane. Small bumps (papillae) cover the upper surface of the tongue.
There are many different reasons for changes in the tongue's function and appearance.
Problems Moving the Tongue
Tongue movement problems are most often caused by nerve damage. Rarely, problems moving the tongue may also be caused by a disorder where the band of tissue that attaches the tongue to the floor of the mouth is too short. This is called ankyloglossia.
Tongue movement disorders may result in:
Taste problems can be caused by:
The tongue normally senses sweet, salty, sour, and bitter tastes. Other "tastes" are actually a function of the sense of smell.
Increased Size of the Tongue
Tongue swelling occurs with:
The tongue may get wider in persons who have no teeth and do not wear dentures.
Sudden swelling of the tongue can happen due to an allergic reaction or a side effect of medicines.
Color changes may occur when the tongue becomes inflamed (glossitis). Papillae (bumps on the tongue) are lost, causing the tongue to appear smooth. Geographic tongue is a patchy form of glossitis where the location of inflammation and the appearance of the tongue change from day to day.
Hairy tongue is a harmless condition in which the tongue looks hairy or furry. The disorder usually goes away with antibiotics.
Sometimes the upper surface of the tongue turns black or brown in color. This is an unsightly condition but it is not harmful.
Pain In the Tongue
Pain may occur with glossitis and geographic tongue. Tongue pain may also occur with:
After menopause, some women have a sudden feeling that their tongue has been burned. This is called burning tongue syndrome or idiopathic glossopyrosis. There is no specific treatment for burning tongue syndrome, but capsaicin (the ingredient that makes peppers spicy) can offer relief to some people.
Minor infections or irritations are the most common cause of tongue soreness. Injury, such as biting the tongue, can cause painful sores. Heavy smoking can irritate the tongue and make it painful.
A viral ulcer on the tongue or elsewhere in the mouth is common. This is called a canker sore and can appear for no known reason.
Possible causes of tongue pain include:
Possible causes of tongue tremor:
Possible causes of white tongue:
Possible causes of smooth tongue:
Possible causes of red (ranging from pink to reddish-purple) tongue:
Possible causes of tongue swelling:
Possible causes of a hairy tongue:
Practicing good oral hygiene can help hairy tongue and black tongue. Be sure to eat a well-balanced diet.
Canker sores will heal on their own.
See your dentist if you have a tongue problem caused by dentures.
Antihistamines can help relieve a swollen tongue caused by allergies. Avoid the food or drug that causes the tongue swelling. Seek medical attention right away if swelling is starting to make breathing difficult.
Call your doctor if your tongue problem persists.
The doctor will perform a physical exam, to look closely at the tongue. You may be asked questions such as:
You may need blood tests or a biopsy to check for other conditions.
Treatment depends on the cause of the tongue problem. Possible treatments include:
Dark tongue; Burning tongue syndrome - symptoms
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Pfeiffer RF. Neurogenic dysphagia. In: Bradley WG, Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, eds. Neurology in Clinical Practice. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Butterworth-Heinemann; 2008:chap 13.
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Updated by: Ashutosh Kacker, MD, BS, Associate Professor of Otolaryngology, Weill Cornell Medical College, and Associate Attending Otolaryngologist, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, New York, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.
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