Causes of a Swollen Tongue

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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.

Most conditions that cause a swollen tongue are not considered an emergency but may require the help of a doctor or other medical professional.

It may also be important to seek medical attention, because many of the causes may also have other health implications that can impact your quality of life if not properly treated.

Common Causes for Developing a Swollen Tongue

  • Infections such as yeast (Candida albicans; also known as thrush), strep, or viral infections like herpangina and oral herpes
  • Malnutrition: vitamin B3 deficiency, vitamin B12 deficiency (pernicious anemia), iron-deficiency anemia, etc.
  • Exposure to chemicals which irritate the mouth such as cigarette smoke, alcohol, or extremely spicy foods
  • Trauma (burns, biting your tongue, wearing poorly fitting dentures, etc.)
  • Mild allergic reactions to things like mouthwash or toothpaste
  • Medications like inhaled steroids; rinsing mouth out after steroid treatment will help prevent swelling of your tongue
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or peptic ulcer disease

Less Common to Rare Causes for Developing a Swollen Tongue

Try These at Home for Mild Swelling of Your Tongue

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 mouthwashes (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 its own.

Tongue Swelling That Is an Emergency

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 rarer in the United States since the introduction of vaccines.


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