Updated on February 22, 2024
6 min read

Why Is My Tongue Swollen?

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Why is My Tongue Swollen? 

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. 

illustration of open mouth showing tip of tongue

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.

When to See a Doctor

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.

Life-Threatening Signs and Symptoms

A swollen tongue that blocks the airway is a medical emergency. Seek medical attention right away if you experience:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Gasping for air
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Inability to speak
  • Bluish discoloration of the lips

11 Potential Causes of a Swollen Tongue

Here are some potential causes of tongue swelling:

1. Allergic Reactions

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:

  • Peanuts and tree nuts
  • Sesame seeds
  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Soy
  • Wheat
  • Fish and shellfish

Other substances that can cause tongue swelling include:

  • Latex
  • Venom from insect bites and bee stings
  • Artificial flavorings and dyes
  • Chemicals in certain oral care products like toothpaste, mouthwash, and denture cleaners

Other Symptoms

Anaphylaxis is a serious allergic reaction that causes rapid, severe swelling of the tongue and face. It may occur with other symptoms, such as:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Hives
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Trouble swallowing

If you think you or someone you know is experiencing an anaphylactic reaction, visit the emergency room immediately.

Treatment

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.

2. Medications

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

  • Antidepressants
  • Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors for lowering blood pressure
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen
  • Lithium carbonate
  • Oral contraceptives that contain estrogen

Other Symptoms

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.

Treatment

If the swelling is severe, your doctor may recommend stopping the offending medication.

3. Hypothyroidism

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.

Illustrations comparing a healthy human throat to a throat with hyperthyroidism

Other Symptoms

Other symptoms of thyroid problems include:

  • Numb hands
  • Fatigue
  • Weight gain
  • Constipation
  • Decreased sexual interest

Treatment

Treating hypothyroidism often requires taking hormone replacement medication.

4. Infections

Several viral, fungal, and bacterial infections can cause a swollen tongue. These include:

  • Yeast infections (oral thrush)
  • Herpes simplex virus
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Syphilis
  • Gonorrhea
  • Strep throat

5. Skin/Mucosa Conditions

Skin/mucosa diseases that can cause tongue irritation and swelling include:

  • Pemphigus — A life-threatening autoimmune disease that causes skin blisters and mouth sores
  • Oral lichen planus — An inflammatory disease that causes swelling and sores around the mouth
  • Oral psoriasis — An autoimmune disease that can cause fissured tongue and geographic tongue, a condition that causes missing taste buds (papillae)

6. Irritation

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.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease Gerd or Heartburn illustration comparison vs. a healthy stomach

Ingesting irritants, such as alcohol, spicy foods, and tobacco, can also irritate and inflame the tongue.

7. Trauma 

Tongue injuries that may cause temporary swelling include:

  • Biting the tongue
  • Burning the tongue on hot foods or drinks
  • Oral piercings
  • Dental appliances with sharp edges

8. Sjögren’s Syndrome

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.

9. Vitamin Deficiency

Tongue inflammation can result from pathologically low levels of B vitamins, including:

  • Vitamin B1
  • Vitamin B2
  • Vitamin B3
  • Vitamin B6
  • Vitamin B9
  • Vitamin B12

Iron deficiency can also cause tongue swelling.

10. Tongue Cancer

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.

11. Melkersson-Rosenthal Syndrome

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.

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Diagnosing Tongue Swelling

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.

How to Treat a Swollen Tongue

Treating a swollen tongue focuses on two main goals:

  1. Relieve symptoms like pain and inflammation
  2. Address the underlying cause

Depending on your needs, treatment may involve a combination of home remedies and professional care.

Home Remedies

Minor tongue swelling that doesn’t worsen may resolve with home remedies, such as:

  • Practice good oral hygiene — Brushing and flossing daily can reduce inflammation and may prevent tongue swelling from recurring. Be sure to use a non-irritating mouthwash that doesn’t contain alcohol.
  • Drink plenty of fluids — Staying hydrated can reduce dry mouth and improve oral and overall health. Drinking cool beverages may also soothe tongue pain and ease swelling.
  • Avoid irritating foods — Acidic, salty, and spicy foods can cause tongue irritation.

Professional Treatments

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:

  • Medications — Antibiotics treat bacterial infections like strep throat, antifungals treat yeast infections, and antivirals treat viral infections.
  • Dietary or lifestyle changes — You may need to quit smoking, avoid alcohol, or stop eating certain foods.
  • Nutritional supplements — If you have anemia or a vitamin deficiency, your doctor may recommend iron or B-vitamin supplements.

Summary

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.

Last updated on February 22, 2024
11 Sources Cited
Last updated on February 22, 2024
All NewMouth content is medically reviewed and fact-checked by a licensed dentist or orthodontist to ensure the information is factual, current, and relevant.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only cite from current scientific research, such as scholarly articles, dentistry textbooks, government agencies, and medical journals. This also includes information provided by the American Dental Association (ADA), the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
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