What Can Cause a Sore Tongue and Throat?

From Allergies to Infections and More

A number of conditions can cause pain in the tongue and throat. Most of these conditions are common and benign, such as the common cold, but others, such as cancer, may be more serious.

Determining the cause of your sore throat or tongue can be imperative in determining what, if any, treatment you might need. This article will outline basic facts about the following common conditions that can result in a sore tongue or throat.

Potential Causes of a Sore Tongue and Throat

Jessica Olah / Verywell

Allergy

Allergies to substances such as mold, pollen, dust, or dander can cause a sore throat. Occasionally food allergies may cause symptoms that affect the tongue, including itchiness or tongue swelling (this sometimes occurs during a severe and dangerous allergic reaction called anaphylaxis).

Symptoms

Symptoms of allergies may include:

  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Postnasal drip
  • Sneezing
  • Itchy eyes or ears
  • Hives or rashes
  • Coughing
  • Nasal congestion

Symptoms of anaphylaxis may include:

  • Hoarseness
  • Difficulty breathing, blue coloration of the skin or around the lips (cyanosis)
  • Swelling of the tongue, difficulty speaking, drooling
  • Face swelling
  • Redness, hives, or rash
  • Feeling dizzy or fainting

You should call 911 or go to the emergency room if you have symptoms of anaphylaxis as this is a life-threatening condition that needs to be treated promptly and professionally.

Causes

Allergies are common and often hereditary. Allergy symptoms occur when the immune system overreacts to a certain substance (called a trigger), such as pollen, food, or pet dander. Most of the symptoms occur when the immune system releases a substance called histamine.

Treatment

A sore throat caused by allergies can be soothed with over-the-counter (OTC) products such as acetaminophen or cough drops. A sore throat related to allergies is often a result of another symptom called postnasal drip. This can be helped with decongestants and by increasing the amount of fluids you’re drinking, or by using a cool mist humidifier.

The underlying condition may benefit from treatment with antihistamines, most of which are also available over-the-counter, although it is recommended that you consult your healthcare provider about which product to use. Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening illness that requires emergency medical attention.

Trauma

Injuries from a variety of sources can result in a sore tongue and throat.

Symptoms

  • Sore throat
  • Hoarseness
  • Redness or inflammation of the tongue
  • Discoloration or blisters on the tongue
  • A cut or sore on the tongue
  • Tongue pain
  • A burning sensation in the tongue or throat
  • Heartburn, stomach pain, or feeling full, which are symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

Causes

Biting your tongue, having your tongue injured while receiving dental work, or burning your tongue or throat while eating hot foods or liquids may cause a sore tongue or throat. While it is much more common to burn only your tongue with food or fluids, cases have been reported of burning the throat or esophagus this way as well.

You can also get a sore tongue or throat if the tissue is irritated by contact with highly acidic or chemical substances. This happens to people who have a condition called GERD (acid reflux). When they lie down to sleep at night, stomach acid can travel up the esophagus and irritate the back of the throat. This is a common cause of sore throat.

Treatment

Minor burns of the tongue from drinking or eating hot food or fluids are easily treated at home by eating and drinking cold food and fluids or using over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. You should consult a medical professional if you notice blisters or blackened tissue.

If you have bitten your tongue or it was injured from dental work or braces, you can usually treat it at home by eating and drinking cold food and fluids and using over-the-counter pain relievers. Consult a healthcare provider if you have a deep wound, especially if it continues to bleed or if you have a sore that does not go away in a week or two.

If you are experiencing a sore throat from GERD, it is best treated in consultation with a qualified healthcare provider. Antacid medications and proton pump inhibitors are frequently used. Elevating the head of the bed while you sleep can also help with nighttime GERD symptoms.

Burning Mouth Syndrome

Burning mouth syndrome is a very complex illness that mostly affects people over the age of 60, especially those who have gone through menopause. This is a very basic overview of burning mouth syndrome. If you suspect this may be the cause of your sore tongue or throat, research this condition further and consult a healthcare professional.

Symptoms

Symptoms of burning mouth syndrome may include:

  • Severe constant burning sensation located at the tip of the tongue
  • Dry mouth
  • Metallic taste in the mouth
  • Problems swallowing or chewing

Symptoms of burning mouth syndrome can manifest quite suddenly or can gradually appear over time.

Causes

The causes of burning mouth syndrome can be numerous and difficult to identify. Some conditions known to contribute to burning mouth syndrome include:

  • Nerve damage to the nerves that control pain or the sense of taste
  • Fungal infections, such as oral thrush
  • Hormone imbalances
  • Vitamin deficiency
  • Medication side effects
  • Diabetes
  • Allergies to dental products and materials, or food allergies
  • Acid reflux
  • Dry mouth

Treatment

Treatment for burning mouth syndrome depends on the underlying cause. For example, a fungal infection needs to be treated with anti-fungal medication, and hormone imbalances and vitamin deficiencies must be corrected. Here are some common medications used for the treatment of burning mouth syndrome:

Other less common treatment methods may be aimed at blocking the pain receptors through electrical devices or with the use of topical medications, behavioral or lifestyle changes, or counseling if stress or psychological issues are thought to be a contributing factor.

Neuralgia

Glossopharyngeal neuralgia is a condition that causes severe nerve pain in the tongue, throat, and sometimes the ear.

Symptoms

Symptoms may include:

  • Pain in the tongue, throat, or ear that can be described as sharp, stabbing, or like an electric shock
  • Feeling like there is a sharp object lodged in the throat
  • Heart symptoms (low pulse, low blood pressure, fainting) or seizures

Causes

Glossopharyngeal neuralgia is typically caused by a compressed nerve, damage to a blood vessel supplying a nerve, or a deterioration of the protective sheath covering the nerve (such as occurs with a disease like multiple sclerosis). A growth or tumor may compress the nerve, or it can be compressed by a blood vessel or other nearby structure.

Treatment

Over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen are not very effective for neuralgia. Medications that target nerve pain such as gabapentin or carbamazepine may initially relieve the pain caused by glossopharyngeal neuralgia but tend to lose effectiveness over time.

For throat pain some people find it effective to use a local anesthetic medication called xylocaine to numb the back of the throat, making it more comfortable to swallow.

Surgery may be effective for some people. For example, if the neuralgia is caused by a blood vessel that is compressing the nerve, a surgical procedure called microvascular decompression (MVD) can be used to re-route the blood vessel. If the nerve is compressed by a growth or tumor, those can also sometimes be surgically excised.

Strep Throat

Strep throat is an extremely common cause of sore throat. It is caused by the streptococcus bacteria and requires a strep test to diagnose accurately. While strep throat can occur at any age, it is most common in individuals aged 5-15 years.

Symptoms

Symptoms of strep throat may include:

  • Sore throat
  • Swollen tonsils
  • White patches on the tonsils
  • Tiny red spots on the inside of the mouth
  • Swollen uvula
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Fever
  • Fatigue

While the symptoms of strep throat overlap with those caused by infections like the common cold and viral upper respiratory infections, some symptoms that are common with a cold are noticeably absent in strep throat. These include:

Causes

As previously mentioned, strep throat is caused by a bacteria, group A streptococcus. You can get this infection by having contact with someone else who has it, especially if you share food or drinks or kiss them, but also through respiratory droplets from coughing or sneezing.

Group A streptococcus bacteria also causes skin lesions called impetigo, and you can become infected if you touch these sores.

Treatment

Strep throat should always be treated with an appropriate antibiotic to avoid complications such as ear or sinus infections, or more serious conditions including rheumatic fever (a heart condition) or glomerulonephritis (a kidney condition).

Amoxicillin or penicillin are frequently-used antibiotics for strep throat, but can’t be used in individuals who are allergic to this class of medications. Make sure you take the antibiotic exactly as prescribed and for the entire duration your healthcare provider has recommended.

You should start feeling better and are no longer contagious after you have been taking an appropriate antibiotic for at least 48 hours and no longer have a fever. In the meantime, you can ease your throat pain by eating and drinking cold food or fluids. Stick to foods that are easy to chew and swallow, and try an over-the-counter pain reliever.

In cases where the tonsils are extremely swollen, steroid medications are sometimes prescribed to decrease the size of the tonsils and improve your ability to swallow, but this is usually not necessary. If over-the-counter medications are inadequate for pain relief, you may ask your healthcare provider about a local anesthetic type medication that numbs the back of your throat.

Tongue Cancer

Oral cancer involving the tongue is one of the most common types of head and neck cancer. Traditionally cancer of the tongue has occurred more frequently in males of older age who have a history of drinking alcohol or smoking tobacco.

In recent years, although the overall incidence of tongue cancer has been decreasing, this type of cancer has increased in incidence among younger women who do not have a history of drinking alcohol or using tobacco. Tongue cancer has also been increasing in younger patients due to exposure to the human papillomavirus (HPV).

Symptoms

The most common and first noticed symptom of tongue cancer is usually a sore on the tongue that does not go away. This sore may hurt and may bleed easily. Other symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty swallowing or experiencing pain when swallowing
  • Weight loss
  • Difficulty speaking (slurring words)
  • Lumps in the neck or surrounding area, or swollen lymph nodes if the cancer has spread

Causes

It is not always possible to identify the exact cause of tongue cancer. Still, certain risk factors are associated with this type of malignancy, including alcohol and tobacco use, inadequate oral hygiene, and human papillomavirus infection.

This type of cancer is highly associated with smoking. The overall incidence of the disease has decreased, and this is thought to coincide with fewer people who are smoking cigarettes.

Tongue cancer is highly associated with smoking. The overall incidence of the condition has decreased and is thought to coincide with fewer people who are smoking cigarettes.

Treatment

The treatment for tongue cancer depends on the stage of cancer at the time of diagnosis. If caught early, surgery may be the only treatment necessary.

The extent of surgery required depends on the size of the tumor, whether more than one tumor is found, or if there is localized spread of the cancer. Depending on how much of the tongue is affected, reconstruction may be necessary to preserve speech and the ability to swallow.

Later stages of the disease usually require several types of treatment. Depending on where the cancer is found, surgery or combinations of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy may be necessary.

A Word From Verywell

A sore tongue or throat is extremely common and something that most people will experience not only once, but many times throughout their lives. Discomfort can usually be managed easily at home.

Since it is so common, most people don’t worry too much when this condition manifests, but it can in rare instances be associated with serious or even life-threatening illnesses.

Always call your healthcare provider if your condition is unexplainable and doesn’t improve over the course of a week or so, or if you have a gut feeling that something is wrong. If you have symptoms such as difficulty breathing, drooling, or difficulty swallowing, you should seek emergency medical attention.

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19 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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