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General Information

DEFINITION--Acute or chronic inflammation of the tongue from a variety of causes. This is sometimes contagious, but not cancerous.

BODY PARTS INVOLVED--Tongue and adjacent parts of the mouth.

SEX OR AGE MOST AFFECTED--Both sexes; all ages.


    Any of the following:

  • Bright red, swollen tongue.
  • Ulcers on the tongue.
  • Hairy-looking tongue.
  • A tongue with red tip and edges.


  • Infections, including herpes.
  • Burns.
  • Injury from jagged teeth, ill-fitting dentures, mouth-breathing or repeated biting during convulsive seizures.
  • Excessive consumption of alcohol, tobacco, hot food or spices.
  • Poor dental health.
  • Allergy to toothpaste, mouthwash (especially mouthwash containing peroxide), candy, dye or material used in dental work.
  • Lack of B-vitamins, resulting in pellagra, B-12-deficiency anemia or iron-deficiency anemia.
  • Adverse reaction to antibiotic drugs.


  • Poor nutrition, especially vitamin deficiencies.
  • Smoking.
  • Chemical or environmental exposure to irritating or corrosive chemicals.
  • Alcoholism.
  • Anxiety or depression.


  • Practice good oral hygiene. Brush teeth and tongue at least twice a day, and floss teeth daily. Get regular dental checkups.
  • Don't smoke.
  • Prevent tongue injury by wearing protective headgear for contact sports or cycling.

What To Expect


  • Your own observation of symptoms.
  • Medical history and physical exam by a doctor.
  • Laboratory blood studies or biopsy (See Glossary) to determine any underlying disorder.


  • Self-care.
  • Doctor's treatment if self-care doesn't relieve symptoms.

POSSIBLE COMPLICATIONS--Tongue inflammation can become chronic if not adequately treated.

PROBABLE OUTCOME--Usually curable in 2 weeks with treatment.

How To Treat


  • Treatment will be directed at the underlying cause along with self-help measures.
  • Observe if there is an association between eating specific foods and tongue inflammation. Irritating foods may include chocolate, citrus, acid foods (vinegar, pickles), salted nuts or potato chips.
  • Rinse mouth 3 or more times a day with a salt solution (1/2 teaspoon salt to 8 oz. water).
  • If tongue inflammation is caused by a rough tooth or denture, consult your dentist. Inflammation won't heal until the cause is eliminated.


  • For minor pain, you may use non-prescription drugs, such as anesthetic mouthwashes or acetaminophen.
  • For infection and pain, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics or topical anesthetics.

ACTIVITY--No restrictions.

DIET--No special diet, except to avoid foods that aggravate inflammation. Drink as many fluids and eat as well-balanced a diet as possible while healing. To minimize pain, sip liquids through straws. Foods that cause the least pain are milk, liquid gelatin, yogurt, ice cream and custard.

Call Your Doctor If

  • Fever develops.
  • Symptoms don't improve in 3 days despite treatment.
  • Pain is unbearable and isn't relieved by treatment.
  • Skin rash appears.
  • Weight loss occurs.
  • Tongue swells and interferes with swallowing.
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