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Tongue problems

  • Definition

    Tongue problems include pain, swelling, or a change in how the tongue looks.

    Alternative Names

    Dark tongue; Burning tongue syndrome


    The tongue is mainly made up of muscles. It is covered with a mucus membrane. Small bumps (papillae) cover the upper surface of the tongue.

    • Between the papillae are the taste buds, which allow you to taste.
    • The tongue moves food to help you chew and swallow.
    • The tongue also helps you form words.

    There are many different reasons for changes in the tongue's function and appearance.


    Tongue movement problems are most often caused by nerve damage. Rarely, problems moving the tongue may also be caused by a disorder where the band of tissue that attaches the tongue to the floor of the mouth is too short. This is called ankyloglossia.

    Tongue movement disorders may result in:

    • Breastfeeding problems in newborns
    • Difficulty moving food during chewing and swallowing
    • Speech difficulties


    Taste problems can be caused by damage to the taste buds, nerve problems, side effects of medications, an infection, or other condition. The tongue normally senses sweet, salty, sour, and bitter tastes. Other "tastes" are actually a function of the sense of smell.


    Tongue swelling occurs with:

    • Acromegaly
    • Amyloidosis
    • Down syndrome
    • Myxedema
    • Rhabdomyoma

    The tongue may get wider in persons who have no teeth and do not wear dentures.

    Sudden swelling of the tongue can happen due to an allergic reaction or a side effect of medications.


    Color changes may occur when the tongue becomes inflamed (glossitis). Papillae (bumps on the tongue) are lost, causing the tongue to appear smooth. Geographic tongue is a patchy form of glossitis where the location of inflammation and the appearance of the tongue change from day to day.


    Hairy tongue is a harmless condition in which the tongue looks hairy or furry. The disorder usually goes away with antibiotics.


    Sometimes the upper surface of the tongue turns black or brown in color. This is an unsightly condition but it is not harmful.


    Pain may occur with glossitis and geographic tongue. Tongue pain may also occur with:

    • Diabetic neuropathy
    • Leukoplakia
    • Mouth ulcers
    • Oral cancer

    After menopause, some women have a sudden feeling that their tongue has been burned. This is called burning tongue syndrome or idiopathic glossopyrosis. There is no specific treatment for burning tongue syndrome, but capsaicin (the ingredient that makes peppers spicy) can offer relief to some patients.

    Common Causes

    Minor infections or irritations are the most common cause of tongue soreness. Injury, such as biting the tongue, can cause painful sores. Heavy smoking can irritate the tongue and make it painful.

    A viral ulcer, also called a canker sore, commonly appears on the tongue (or anywhere in the mouth) for no obvious reason. Some doctors believe that these ulcers are linked to emotional stress or fatigue, although this has not been proved.

    Possible causes of tongue pain include:

    • Anemia
    • Cancer
    • Dentures that irritate the tongue
    • Oral herpes (ulcers)
    • Neuralgia
    • Pain from teeth and gums
    • Pain from the heart

    Possible causes of tongue tremor:

    • Neurological disorder
    • Overactive thyroid

    Possible causes of white tongue:

    • Local irritation
    • Smoking and alcohol use

    Possible causes of smooth tongue:

    • Anemia
    • Vitamin B12 deficiency

    Possible causes of red (ranging from pink to magenta) tongue:

    • Folic acid and vitamin B12 deficiency
    • Pellagra
    • Pernicious anemia
    • Plummer-Vinson syndrome
    • Sprue

    Possible causes of tongue swelling:

    • Acromegaly
    • Allergic reaction to food or medicine
    • Amyloidosis
    • Angioedema
    • Beckwith syndrome
    • Cancer of the tongue
    • Congenital micrognathia
    • Down syndrome
    • Hypothyroidism
    • Infection
    • Leukemia
    • Lymphangioma
    • Neurofibromatosis
    • Pellagra
    • Pernicious anemia
    • Strep infection
    • Tumor of the pituitary gland

    Possible causes of a hairy tongue:

    • AIDS
    • Antibiotic therapy
    • Drinking coffee
    • Dyes in drugs and food
    • Chronic medical conditions
    • Overuse of mouthwashes containing oxidizing or astringent ingredients
    • Radiation of the head and neck
    • Tobacco use

    Possible cause of grooves in the tongue:

    • Birth defect -- normally occurs in 10% of population