Updated on February 9, 2024
6 min read

What Causes Sores on Tongue?

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What are Tongue Sores?

Tongue sores, or ulcers, are common and can affect anyone, lasting from a few days to 2 weeks.1 

When to See Your Dentist

If you experience sores on the tongue accompanied by any of the following symptoms, contact a healthcare provider:16

  • Additional mouth sores
  • Bleeding gums
  • Blisters or sores elsewhere on the body
  • Diarrhea
  • Extreme pain
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Inability to eat or drink
  • Rash
  • Sores that haven’t healed after 2 weeks
  • White mouth patches

A doctor or dentist will decide the next steps, like tests or a biopsy, to determine the cause and rule out cancer.4

What Causes Sores on Tongue?

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

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

  • Mouth sores 
  • Eye inflammation
  • Pain in the genital area
  • Skin ulcers

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

  • Growth of the ulcer over time
  • Bleeding
  • Dryness, burning, or pain while eating cold or hot foods
  • Mucus
  • Pain or discomfort when chewing or swallowing
  • Pus in the mouth or on the tongue
  • Swelling in the gums, mouth, or throat


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:

  • Pain
  • Bad breath
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Loss of taste4

Canker Sores

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

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

Symptoms include:

  • Tongue redness
  • Tongue soreness 
  • Tongue swelling
  • Pain when eating or swallowing food

Treatments for erythroplakia include topical medications, laser therapy, or surgical removal.

Geographic Tongue (GT)

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

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

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:

  • Bad breath
  • Brown spots on teeth and gums
  • Stained teeth
  • Tooth decay
  • Oral cancer 

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.

How to Get Rid of Tongue Sores

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

Home remedies for tongue sores include:

  • Aloe vera Research suggests topical aloe use may help people with herpes simplex and lichen planus.13 To use, rinse with aloe juice multiple times a day.
  • Avoiding certain foods Avoid salty and acidic foods such as tomatoes and cinnamon, which can irritate mouth injuries and cause more pain and inflammation.
  • Baking soda Baking soda can reduce pain and inflammation and prevent infection. 14
  • Honey Honey can reduce pain and inflammation and prevent infection.
  • Ice Sucking on ice can reduce pain, burning sensations, and inflammation.
  • Saltwater gargle Gargling with salt water is a standard treatment for sore throat pain and irritation. The salt in the water may have antibacterial properties that can kill bacteria in the throat and soothe the pain. It also helps decrease throat inflammation caused by bacteria or viruses. 
  • Healthy diet By maintaining a well-balanced diet, you can reduce the chance of vitamin deficiencies. Eating soups and soft foods can protect the mucous membranes and prevent sores from worsening.15

Professional Treatments

Professional treatments for tongue sores include:

  • Antibiotics — Bacterial infections cause a sore tongue. Your healthcare provider may recommend a course of antibiotics to tackle this infection.
  • Antifungals — The treatment for oral thrush is usually an antifungal medication.
  • Prescription mouthwash — To prevent infection from a sore tongue, use a prescription mouthwash or antimicrobial rinse to reduce bacteria in the area.
  • Steroids — Healthcare providers may prescribe these to reduce inflammation in the case of lichen planus.
  • Supplements — If a vitamin deficiency causes a mouth sore, prescription vitamin supplements, which may include iron or B12, can help.

Can You Prevent Tongue Sores?

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.

Last updated on February 9, 2024
16 Sources Cited
Last updated on February 9, 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).
  1. Cleveland Clinic. “What Your Tongue Can Tell You About Your Health.” www.health.clevelandclinic.org, 2019.
  2. NORD. “Behçet’s Syndrome.” www.rarediseases.org, 2018.
  3. American Cancer Society. “Mouth Sores and Pain.” www.cancer.org, 2021.
  4. American Dental Association. “Mouth Sores and Spots.” www.mouthhealthy.org, n.d.
  5. Cleveland Clinic. “Canker Sores.” www.health.clevelandclinic.org, 2022.
  6. Mayo Clinic. “Cold sore.” www.mayoclinic.org, 2020.
  7. Reichart, P. A. et al. “Oral erythroplakia–a review” Oral Oncol., 2005.
  8. NHS. “Sore or white tongue.” www.nhs.uk/, 2020.
  9. Mayo Clinic. “Burning mouth syndrome.” www.mayoclinic.org, 2019.
  10. Mayo Clinic. “Leukoplakia.” www.mayoclinic.org, 2018.
  11. DermNet NZ. “Lichen planus.” www.dermnetnz.org, 2015.
  12. CDC. “How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease.” www.cdc.gov, n.d.
  13. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. “Aloe Vera.” www.nccih.nih.gov, 2020.
  14. Ray, S. C. et al. “Oral NaHCO3 Activates a Splenic Anti-Inflammatory Pathway: Evidence That Cholinergic Signals Are Transmitted via Mesothelial Cells” Journal of Immunology, 2018.
  15. InformedHealth.org “Canker sores (mouth ulcers): What can you do if you have a canker sore?” www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/, 2019.
  16. Cleveland Clinic. “7 Signs Your Painful Mouth Sore Could Be Something More Serious.” www.health.clevelandclinic.org, 2021.
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