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Glossitis is a condition characterized by tongue swelling and inflammation. It can also make your tongue look smooth or discolored. In severe cases, you might notice pain in your tongue or difficulty swallowing.
You can develop tongue swelling quickly or over an extended period. The condition has many causes, including anemia, nutrient deficiencies, and infections.1
While glossitis typically isn’t a cause for alarm, see a doctor to identify the underlying issue. Your symptoms should resolve once your doctor treats the cause.
Glossitis may present as one of a few different types, including:
Acute glossitis develops rapidly and can be severe. You’re most likely to develop it if you’re having an allergic reaction.
Chronic glossitis comes on slowly over time. It may disappear and recur multiple times. If you have long-term or recurring glossitis, it’s likely a symptom of another underlying condition.
In atrophic glossitis, also called Hunter glossitis, you lose all or part of your papillae, the tiny protrusions on your tongue. The loss of papillae often makes your tongue’s surface look smooth and glossy.
Many cases of Hunter glossitis develop from a vitamin deficiency, such as iron or zinc.2
Benign migratory glossitis is also called geographic tongue. It causes patches of missing papillae on your tongue. These appear as red tongue lesions with white borders.
The cause of geographic tongue is unknown, but the condition is harmless.
Better known as burning tongue syndrome, menopausal glossitis affects the tip of your tongue and the roof of your mouth. It’s most common during the menopausal period.
The primary symptom of menopausal glossitis is a painful tongue. You might also experience a burning sensation on your tongue.
Doctors treat burning tongue syndrome with various therapies, including pain relievers and hormone replacement.3
The symptoms of glossitis vary depending on the type. The most common include:
More severe cases might include symptoms like:
If you develop symptoms quickly or experience difficulty breathing, seek immediate medical attention.
The causes of glossitis include:
An allergy to food, medication, or other allergens can cause a swollen tongue. Other symptoms of an allergic reaction include:
Mild allergic reactions may resolve independently. However, if you have severe symptoms, seek medical care immediately.
Glossitis may occur when you’re not getting the nutrients you need. A nutritional deficiency usually causes a loss of papillae on the tongue, known as atrophic glossitis.
The condition can indicate anemia, which happens when your body isn’t getting enough oxygen-rich blood.4 Anemia often results from a deficiency of iron or Vitamin B12. You’ll likely also feel tired and weak.
Other deficiencies that might cause glossitis include:2
Studies show a high prevalence of nutritional deficiencies in the US. For example, 84% of the American population gets an inadequate amount of vitamin E.6
Dry mouth occurs when the salivary glands in your mouth don’t produce sufficient saliva. It makes your mouth and tongue dry and may cause a scratchy throat. It can also cause glossitis.
Many different issues can cause dry mouth. You must consult a doctor to determine the underlying condition and treatment.
Various types of infection can cause glossitis, including:
Hormones may play a role in developing glossitis. Burning tongue syndrome is also called menopausal glossitis, as it’s commonly seen in menopausal women.
Hormonal factors may also increase your risk for a geographic tongue, though the connection remains unclear.
A mouth injury can cause tongue inflammation. Cuts or burns can make your tongue swollen, as can irritation from dental appliances like braces.
Certain medications may cause glossitis as a side effect, including:1
Always speak to your doctor if symptoms such as tongue inflammation occur after starting a new medication.
Diagnosing glossitis involves an oral exam by a dentist or doctor. They’ll take a medical history.
They’ll also physically examine your tongue and the soft tissues of your mouth. Saliva or blood tests might also be used to determine the cause.
According to Dr. Nandita Lilly, New Mouth’s in-house resident dentist, “Glossitis has numerous potential causes, and while most are benign, some can be of a serious systemic underlying condition.”
The treatment for glossitis depends on the cause and can include:
Your doctor may prescribe medication to treat the medical condition causing your symptoms, such as:
You can improve your oral health and alleviate symptoms by practicing good oral hygiene.
Daily brushing and flossing, tongue scraping, and using an alcohol-free mouthwash can help relieve symptoms and improve oral health.
Some lifestyle changes may relieve your symptoms and reduce your chances of developing a condition that causes tongue swelling, such as:
Your doctor can recommend the best antibiotic for glossitis based on your underlying cause. A common antibiotic for treating oral thrush is fluconazole.
You can’t always prevent glossitis, but some tips that might help stop it from developing include:
Glossitis typically goes away when you treat the underlying cause. How long it takes to heal depends on how quickly you get treatment and your condition.
Underlying conditions like oral thrush, oral herpes, geographic tongue, or nutritional deficiencies cause glossitis. Oral irritants such as tobacco or spicy foods can also cause it.
Deficiencies of iron, vitamin B12, zinc, riboflavin, folic acid, and others have been known to cause glossitis.
Strawberry tongue refers to a tongue that is swollen, red, and bumpy. Viral and bacterial infections can cause strawberry tongue.
Certain medications may cause glossitis as a side effect, including ACE inhibitors, birth control pills, and antimicrobial drugs.
Glossitis is the swelling and inflammation of the tongue. It’s typically the symptom of an underlying condition, such as infections, nutritional deficiencies, or allergic reactions.
You may notice a loss of papillae on your tongue and a change in the color of your tongue. Consult with a doctor if you notice any of these changes. A dentist or doctor can perform an oral exam to diagnose and treat the root cause.
Treatment includes medications, oral care, and lifestyle changes. Avoiding triggers like tobacco and spicy foods may help soothe your symptoms and prevent glossitis.
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