What Causes a Swollen Tongue?

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Question: What Causes a Swollen Tongue?

A swollen tongue may be caused by a variety of conditions. In general, swelling often occurs as a result of inflammation or tissue damage. Because a swollen tongue can sometimes be an indication of a serious condition, (such as a life threatening allergic reaction), it is important to find out what is causing your swollen tongue and get help when needed.


The following is a list of some conditions that may cause a swollen tongue. These conditions are not necessarily emergent but may require the help of a doctor or other medical professional:

  • trauma (including any type of injury to your tongue or the inside of your mouth, such as burning your tongue by eating food that is too hot, accidentally biting your tongue, etc...)
  • sores on the tongue (usually caused by a virus, for example, herpangina)
  • strep infections
  • miscellaneous mouth infections including yeast infections (thrush) or oral herpes
  • cancer (such as tongue cancer, leukemia, or neurofibromatosis)
  • genetic disorders such as down's syndrome or Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome
  • Certain diseases like acromegaly (giantism), hypothyroidism, amyloidosis
  • rhabdomyolosis (the breakdown of skeletal muscle tissue)
  • pernicious anemia
  • chronic vitamin B3 deficiency
  • Kawasaki disease
  • an excessively dry mouth which may be caused by an underlying medical condition such as Sjorgen syndrome
  • changes in hormone levels
  • exposure to chemicals which irritate the mouth such as cigarette smoke, alcohol, or extremely spicy foods
  • mild allergic reactions to things like mouthwash or toothpaste
  • geographic tongue
  • oral lichen planus

For a mild swollen tongue that is not getting worse you may wish to try some of the following things at home to reduce the swelling:

  • Eating cool foods and drinking a lot of cool liquids may help to reduce swelling and also feel soothing, some sources recommend sucking on ice.
  • Practice good oral hygiene such as brushing and flossing but avoid irritating mouth washes (typically those that contain alcohol). You may want to try rinsing with a warm salt water solution.
  • Avoid irritating chemicals and very acidic or extremely salty foods.
  • For an excessively dry mouth try chewing sugar free gum or sucking on sugar free hard candy. Drink plenty of fluids. A variety of products have also recently come on the market to aid in treating dry mouth.

You should see a doctor any time that you have unexplained tongue swelling, particularly if it doesn't resolve in a day or two on it's own.

The following is a list of conditions that may cause a swollen tongue and may also require immediate medical intervention. You should call 911 or go to the emergency room right away if your swollen tongue is accompanied by difficulty breathing, drooling, or swallowing difficulties.

  • An allergic reaction - tongue swelling can be a pre-cursor to a life threatening condition called anaphylactic shock. Other symptoms of this condition include itching, swelling of the lips or face, hives, drooling, difficulty breathing, a bluish coloration of the lips (cyanosis), stomach cramps, nausea, and vomiting. Symptoms usually start soon after eating something you are allergic to, or being stung by an insect. They progress very rapidly and will only be stopped with proper treatment including a life saving injection of epinephrine.
  • Epiglottitis - an infection (usually infections of streptococci but may be caused by other pathogens as well) that can cause tongue and throat swelling usually in small children ages 2-4 years. A tale-tale symptom is drooling. Symptoms usually progress very rapidly and in addition to tongue swelling may also include stridor (a characteristic noise made while breathing), a muffled voice and difficulty speaking or swallowing. This condition has become more rare in the United States since the introduction of vaccines.


American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Anaphylaxis. Accessed: February 28, 2016 from http://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/library/allergy-library/anaphylaxis.aspx"

Medline Plus. Glossitis. Accessed: February 18, 2016 from https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001053.htm

Medline Plus. Tongue Problems. Accessed: April 26, 2010 from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003047.htm

Medscape. Epiglottitis Clinical Presentation. Accessed: February 18, 2016 from http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/763612-clinical

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