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Tongue sores, or ulcers, are common and can affect anyone, lasting from a few days to 2 weeks.1
If you experience sores on the tongue accompanied by any of the following symptoms, contact a healthcare provider:16
A doctor or dentist will decide the next steps, like tests or a biopsy, to determine the cause and rule out cancer.4
Sores on the tongue can be caused by various factors, some of which are nothing to be concerned about. Others can signify the presence of severe and life-threatening diseases.
It's essential to know the potential causes of a sore in the oral cavity and how to identify them.
Behçet's disease is a rare disorder that affects the entire body. It is caused by an autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation in the blood vessels. This can lead to severe and painful complications such as blindness, stroke, and even death.
Symptoms of Behçet's disease include:2
Ulcers and sores may last for weeks or months.
Treatment for Behçet's disease depends on symptom severity. These treatments include corticosteroids, anti-inflammatory medications, and immunosuppressants.
Mouth cancer can initially present itself as a painless sore on the tongue. Most tongue sores do not signify oral cancer. But it’s best to consult a doctor if the sore persists longer than 2 weeks or worsens.
Other symptoms of oral cancer may include:3
Candida is often called oral thrush. It is a fungal infection that occurs when the yeast found in the mouth multiplies excessively.
Antibiotics that have killed the good bacteria in the mouth and allowed yeast to grow can trigger candida. It can also happen when someone has a weakened immune system.
In addition to mouth sores, it can cause:
Canker sores are typically white but may have a red ring around them. Unlike cold sores, canker sores are not contagious. Trauma, emotional or physiological stress, allergies, or sensitivity to certain foods can cause canker sores.5
Most canker sores typically heal without treatment within 1 to 2 weeks. Home remedies can relieve discomfort.
Cold sores are also called fever blisters and are caused by the herpes simplex virus. They typically appear on the lips, inside the mouth, or around the skin of the chin and nose.6
There are many over-the-counter (OTC) cold sore treatments, including medications. Avoid touching or putting makeup on to prevent cold sores from worsening.
Erythroplakia causes redness of the tongue. It is caused by an inflammation of the tongue’s surface and is usually painless.7
Treatments for erythroplakia include topical medications, laser therapy, or surgical removal.
Geographic tongue (GT) is a benign condition that can occur in adults and children, where a map-like pattern of reddish spots forms on the tongue’s surface. The spots can vary from light red to dark brown and usually spread all over the tongue.8
Glossodynia is also known as burning mouth syndrome. It causes chronic tongue pain. Several factors, including tongue injury, an allergic reaction to something you eat or drink, or a mouth ulcer, can cause it.9
Symptoms include a tingling or burning sensation in the mouth and tongue that can last for hours. Treatment options include topical treatments and painkillers like ibuprofen.
Leukoplakia is a white patch on the tongue that can be caused by smoking, medications, or even a viral infection.10
The most common cause of leukoplakia is smoking tobacco products. It’s considered a precancerous lesion.
Lichen planus is an itchy and painful condition that causes white patches on the tongue surface and inside the cheek. The condition can also form in other areas, including the fingernails, on the skin between your toes, or inside your nose. These patches may be itchy, tender, or painful.11
Sjögren syndrome is a chronic autoimmune disease that affects the moisture-producing glands in the eyes and mouth.
It causes dryness in the eyes, mouth, and throat, and difficulty swallowing. Symptoms of Sjögren syndrome vary from person to person and depend on which body parts are affected.
Smoking can cause mouth or tongue sores. It can also cause:
Smoking also dries out the mouth, which can cause red and irritated skin.12
Trauma to the tongue could result from biting it or burning it on hot food or drinks. You may experience a sore or painful tongue until it heals.
Depending on the cause and severity, you may be able to resolve tongue sores at home. Or, you might need to visit your dentist for more intensive treatments.
Home remedies for tongue sores include:
Professional treatments for tongue sores include:
Sometimes you can prevent tongue sores by avoiding biting your tongue or any other part of your mouth, keeping your teeth and gums healthy, and avoiding irritating foods.
Also, avoid smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.4
Consult a doctor If you notice mouth or tongue discoloration, lumps, sores, or extremely painful areas that don’t go away within 2 weeks. These symptoms could indicate several conditions, including oral cancer. Consult a doctor sooner than later to receive the appropriate treatment.
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