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A swollen tongue can result from various causes, including allergic reactions, infections, and trauma. Less obvious causes of tongue swelling include reactions to certain medications and undiagnosed medical conditions.
Most causes of tongue swelling aren’t serious. Sometimes, a swollen tongue can be a medical emergency, such as in the case of a severe allergic reaction.
Read on to learn what can cause a swollen tongue and when to seek immediate medical attention. This article also covers how a healthcare provider can diagnose and treat various causes of a swollen tongue.
Here are some potential causes of tongue swelling:
The most common cause of tongue swelling is allergic reactions to food and chemicals from various everyday products. An allergic reaction can range from mild to life-threatening.
A swollen tongue may result from common food allergies, including:
Other substances that can cause tongue swelling include:
Anaphylaxis is a serious allergic reaction that causes rapid, severe swelling of the tongue and face. It may occur with other symptoms, such as:
If you think you or someone you know is experiencing an anaphylactic reaction, visit the emergency room immediately.
Treatment for an acute anaphylactic reaction typically involves an epinephrine injection. Other treatments include oxygen therapy and intravenous (IV) antihistamines or steroids.
Allergy treatment is highly personalized and may require ongoing specialized care to prevent future allergic reactions.
Medication reactions are another leading cause of a swollen tongue. These reactions can be allergic or non-allergic.
Over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications that can cause tongue swelling include:1-5
Angioedema is the medical term for swelling beneath the skin. In addition to a swollen tongue, a drug reaction can cause angioedema of the lips and face.
If the swelling is severe, your doctor may recommend stopping the offending medication.
There are many causes of an underactive thyroid gland, but Hashimoto’s disease is among the most common. This autoimmune disorder can cause various symptoms, including throat or tongue swelling.
Other symptoms of thyroid problems include:
Treating hypothyroidism often requires taking hormone replacement medication.
Several viral, fungal, and bacterial infections can cause a swollen tongue. These include:
Skin/mucosa diseases that can cause tongue irritation and swelling include:
Chronic acid reflux can cause the back of the throat to become irritated and swollen. In some people with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), the base of the tongue also swells.
Ingesting irritants, such as alcohol, spicy foods, and tobacco, can also irritate and inflame the tongue.
Tongue injuries that may cause temporary swelling include:
Sjögren’s syndrome is an autoimmune disease that causes the immune system to attack the salivary glands. This causes dry mouth, which can lead to a swollen tongue.
Tongue inflammation can result from pathologically low levels of B vitamins, including:
Iron deficiency can also cause tongue swelling.
In rare cases, a tongue that looks or feels swollen may be a sign of tongue cancer. A tumor on the tongue is typically the cause of the swelling.
This nervous system disorder often causes facial paralysis (Bell’s palsy). Some people also experience permanent facial swelling, which can include swelling of the tongue and lips.
Not every case of a swollen tongue warrants a doctor’s visit. For example, if you experience tongue pain and inflammation after accidentally biting or burning your mouth, it should go away within 10 days. If the swelling persists, call your doctor.
Call your doctor immediately if you experience a sudden onset of tongue swelling without a known cause. It may be a sign of an allergic reaction or other health conditions.
If a swollen tongue worsens or is accompanied with severe symptoms like breathing problems, go to the emergency room immediately.
A swollen tongue that blocks the airway is a medical emergency. Seek medical attention right away if you experience:
To diagnose the cause of a swollen tongue, your healthcare provider will examine your tongue and the surrounding tissue. They’ll also check for a blocked airway.
Your provider will ask about your symptoms and review your medical history. They may order diagnostic tests to determine if the swollen tongue is a result of an allergic reaction or an underlying condition.
Treating a swollen tongue focuses on two main goals:
Depending on your needs, treatment may involve a combination of home remedies and professional care.
Minor tongue swelling that doesn’t worsen may resolve with home remedies, such as:
To reduce inflammation and ease pain, your doctor may prescribe an anti-inflammatory drug or recommend an over-the-counter pain reliever. This will help control symptoms while your doctor treats the underlying cause.
A swollen tongue caused by an underlying condition likely won’t improve until the medical condition receives treatment.
Depending on the cause, professional treatment for a swollen tongue may include:
Many factors can cause a swollen tongue, and most aren’t serious. However, allergic reactions are the most common cause and can be life-threatening if left untreated. A severe allergic reaction may cause anaphylaxis, which warrants immediate medical care.
Seek immediate medical attention if a swollen tongue causes difficulty breathing, speaking, or swallowing. Other common causes of a swollen tongue include drug reactions, irritation, injuries, and autoimmune diseases. Tongue cancer is rarely the cause.
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