Causes of Tongue Infection, Disease, and Pain

Common tongue diseases and problems include canker sores, thrush, oral lichen planus, and tongue trauma. Other problems or conditions that can impact the tongue include tongue cancer, transient lingual papillitis, geographic tongue, vitamin B12 deficiency, Sjögren's syndrome, neuralgia, and allergic reactions.

Tongue diseases and problems can cause pain, bumps, and changes to the color or texture of the tongue as a whole.

Treatment will vary depending on the specific tongue problem. In some cases, it will go away on its own or improve with the use of over-the-counter medications. However, you may need to see a healthcare provider for more serious tongue diseases or conditions.

Learn more about common causes of tongue diseases, tongue pain, and tongue infections. 

doctor looking at tongue

Martin Barraud / Getty Images

Canker Sores

Canker sores are a very common cause of oral pain. In fact, about half of people will experience them at one time or another.

What They Are

Canker sores are small, round sores that appear on the soft tissue of the mouth, including the tongue. They often appear yellowish and look a bit like a pimple in your mouth. 


The symptoms of canker sores are a spot in the mouth that is sore to the touch.

Most of the time, canker sores are less than 1 centimeter (cm) across and appear alone. However, in about 5% of cases, canker sores can present as a cluster of smaller sores.


Healthcare providers aren’t sure what causes canker sores. In some cases, they can be related to lifestyle factors, like what you eat or the toothpaste you use. If you experience repeat canker sores, you should try keeping a journal to identify any trends that are associated with your sores.


Canker sores don’t require treatment. In 85% of cases, they’ll go away on their own within a week; the rest usually resolve within two weeks. However, over-the-counter medications can help manage the pain of canker sores.


Thrush is an oral infection caused by yeast. It’s rare in healthy adults but very common in newborns and adults with other medical conditions, including diabetes and cancer

What It Is

Thrush is a yeast infection in the mouth. Yeast, also known as the fungus Candida, occurs naturally in the mouth. When it becomes too abundant, it can cause the symptoms of thrush.


The symptoms of thrush include white patches on the tongue or elsewhere in the mouth.

In some cases, you might experience red patches as well. People with thrush can feel pain when eating or swallowing and may temporarily lose the sense of taste.


Thrush is caused by an overgrowth of the fungus Candida. This happens most often in people who have a weakened immune system, which is why thrush is more common in:

  • Newborns
  • People with other health conditions
  • People who have been on antibiotic medications


A first-line treatment for thrush is antifungal medications or creams, which are applied to the mouth. If that doesn’t clear the symptoms, your healthcare provider may prescribe more powerful antifungals that are taken orally or through an IV (intravenous) drip.

Oral Lichen Planus

Lichen planus is a dermatological condition that can cause bumps and sores on the skin or in the mouth. Oral lichen planus can appear on the tongue. 

What It Is

Oral lichen planus is a common dermatological condition. It can appear in anyone but is most common in middle-aged women and people with hepatitis C.


The symptoms of lichen planus in the mouth include red or white spots that may have a lacy appearance. These sores can produce pain or a burning sensation.


Healthcare providers don’t understand exactly what causes lichen planus, but they believe it’s an autoimmune disease. In rare cases, lichen planus runs in families.


Lichen planus episodes can last up to two years, and about 20% of people will have a secondary outbreak. Lichen planus on the skin is treated using an array or methods, from antihistamines to steroids to light therapy.

However, oral lichen planus can be more difficult to treat. If you think you might be experiencing oral lichen planus, reach out to a healthcare provider.

Geographic Tongue

Geographic tongue is a harmless condition that affects the appearance of the tongue but often has no symptoms. Geographic tongue makes the tongue appear patchy, with unpredictable lines similar to those on a map. The condition comes and goes over time.

What It Is

Geographic tongue is an aesthetic condition that gives the tongue a patchy appearance but does not affect health. It occurs in 1%–3% of the population.


People with a geographic tongue have a patchwork look to their tongue. However, other than that, the condition usually has no symptoms and is not a cause of tongue pain. In rare cases, people with a geographic tongue have pain or a burning sensation and may be sensitive to spicy foods.


In most people, the tongue is covered in small bumps called papillae. People with geographic tongue are missing these bumps in some places, giving those areas a shiny, smooth appearance. The look of the tongue and the areas with and without bumpy patches change with time.


There’s no treatment for geographic tongue. If you experience increased symptoms when you eat spicy foods, you should consider a bland diet. If your geographic tongue causes you pain, speak with a healthcare provider.

Tongue Cancer

Tongue cancer can occur either on the part of the tongue you can see, which is the front two-thirds of the organ, or in the back one-third, which extends down your throat.

Tongue cancer appears most often in men who are older than 40. It’s five times more likely to occur in smokers than nonsmokers.

What It Is

Tongue cancer is an abnormal growth of cells on the tongue. It is a type of oral cancer.  


The most common symptom of tongue cancer is a red, pink, or greyish bump on the tongue. Cancerous lesions often bleed easily. Symptoms of cancer at the base of the tongue can include:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Having a lump in the throat
  • Ear pain


Cancer, including tongue cancer, is caused by DNA mutations that lead to abnormal cell growth. Although cancer can occur in anyone, smoking can vastly increase the risk of tongue cancer, by up to five times. Chewing tobacco also is a significant cause of tongue and other oral cancers. The habit is popular with teens and young adults and can be a very aggressive disease in these age groups.


If your cancer has not spread, it will likely be treated with surgery to remove the lump or tumor. If your cancer has spread to other areas of your mouth or elsewhere in the body you’ll need additional treatment, which may include chemotherapy or radiation.

Transient lingual papillitis

Transient lingual papillitis
is the temporary swelling and inflammation of the fungiform papillae, the bumps toward the front of the tongue.

What It Is

There are three types of transient lingual papillitis:

  • Localized transient lingual papillitis affects just the tongue, causing swelling in the bumps near the tip.
  • Eruptive lingual papillitis affects the tongue but also causes swelling in the lymph nodes and is more common in children.
  • Papulokeratotic transient lingual papillitis causes painless yellow and white bumps. 


The main symptom of transient lingual papillitis is swelling or irritation on the bumps of the tongue, particularly toward the front. It can also present as white or yellow bumps all over the tongue.

With eruptive lingual papillitis, kids can also experience a fever or swollen lymph nodes. Oftentimes, people with transient lingual papillitis have tongue pain. 


Transient lingual papillitis has a lot of causes, including:

  • Infection
  • Stress
  • Underlying health conditions

Lifestyle choices and injuries, like burning the tongue, eating lots of acidic foods, or smoking, can also contribute to the condition. 


Transient lingual papillitis resolves on its own in a matter of days and doesn’t require treatment. However, rinsing with salt water and avoiding spicy or hot foods can help the tongue heal. 

Tongue Trauma

Tongue trauma can occur when you bite or burn your tongue. 

What It Is

Tongue trauma is an injury that occurs to your tongue. Common causes of tongue trauma are biting the tongue (while eating or during a fall) or burning the tongue on hot food. 


Tongue trauma can lead to pain and bleeding. 


In most cases, injuries to the tongue will resolve on their own. If you’re experiencing bleeding, know that it’s normal for tongue injuries to bleed heavily; however, if you’re worried about whether you might need stitches, reach out to your healthcare provider. 

Whether you have a cut or burn, it’s a good idea to ice your tongue. This can be done by sucking on a small ice cube or popsicle. Drinking cool water might also feel soothing. 

Vitamin Deficiency

If you do not have enough vitamin B12, your tongue may change in appearance. 

What It Is

Vitamin B12 plays a role in the production of red blood cells, as well as a host of other functions in the body. Having a vitamin B12 deficiency can cause an array of symptoms, including making your tongue hurt and giving it a puffy, red appearance.


Oral symptoms of a vitamin B12 deficiency can include a red, puffy tongue or patches of red on the tongue. You may experience burning or pain while eating. 

Other symptoms of a vitamin B12 deficiency include:

  • Anemia
  • Neuropathy (tingling or nerve pain)
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue


A vitamin B12 deficiency can happen when you’re not eating enough foods that contain vitamin B12, which is found in animal proteins. If you’re eating plenty of fish and meat, it may be caused by your gastrointestinal tract not properly absorbing the nutrients that you’re eating. 


If you have a B12 deficiency, a healthcare provider will likely suggest treatment with a B12 supplement, which can be taken as a pill or by injection. They might also suggest dietary changes to make sure you’re getting an adequate amount of B12. 

Sjögren's Syndrome

Sjögren's syndrome is an autoimmune disorder that can cause burning or cracking on the tongue. 

What It Is

Sjögren's syndrome is an autoimmune disease that affects the salivary glands and other moisture-producing glands. In people with Sjögren's syndrome, these glands don’t function properly, which leads to dry mouth and can cause cracking or burning on the tongue.

Sjögren's syndrome often occurs in people with other autoimmune conditions, like lupus and arthritis. However, it can also develop on its own. 


The oral symptoms of Sjögren's syndrome include extreme dryness in the mouth. This can make it difficult to even speak, and it can leave the tongue cracked and painful.


Healthcare providers aren’t sure what causes autoimmune diseases broadly. However, Sjögren's syndrome is caused by the salivary glands and other moisture glands not working properly. 


Treatments for autoimmune diseases, including steroids and medications, like hydroxychloroquine, can help with Sjögren's syndrome. Drinking more water and using oral lubricants can also help manage symptoms.

If you believe that you might have Sjögren's syndrome, you should speak with a healthcare provider. 


Neuralgia is sudden nerve pain. It can happen anywhere in the body, including in the mouth and on the tongue. 

What It Is

Glossopharyngeal neuralgia (GN) is a type of neuralgia that causes nerve pain in the mouth, including the tongue. The pain originates from the glossopharyngeal nerve, also called the ninth cranial nerve. The cause of the pain can include blood vessels pressing on the nerve or an infection that makes the throat swell, which can then put pressure on the nerve.


GN is characterized by short, intense bursts of pain in the mouth or throat. The pain can last for seconds or minutes, and it usually abates on its own. The pain might be triggered by certain movements of the mouth, like chewing or speaking.


GN is caused by pressure on the ninth cranial nerve, which produces pain in the mouth. 


A first-line treatment for GN is medication, which may include anti-seizure medications or antidepressants. If you don’t respond to medication, your healthcare provider may recommend surgery to remove pressure from the nerve or to cut the nerve. Your healthcare provider will also treat any underlying conditions, like infection, that might be contributing to your neuralgia.


Sometimes, allergies to foods or environmental irritants can cause your tongue to become swollen or itchy. 

What It Is

An allergic reaction to food or environmental irritants can cause your tongue to become itchy or swollen. This can happen even if you’re not allergic to the food itself as long as it contains traces of pollen or other allergens.


The symptoms of allergies can include swelling or itchiness on the tongue. It’s critical to realize that an allergic reaction can escalate quickly. If you experience any difficulties breathing or speaking, call 911 immediately.


An itchy or swollen tongue can be caused by an autoimmune response to allergens. 


If you frequently have an itchy or swollen tongue due to allergies, talk to a healthcare provider about an allergy shot, which can help control symptoms. You should work with your healthcare provider to identify the cause of your allergy and avoid those triggers as best you can. 


Some common tongue infections will go away on their own, while others can be treated with over-the-counter medications, so getting a proper diagnosis for tongue pain is important.

A Word From Verywell

Having a tongue infection or tongue pain can be inconvenient and uncomfortable. There are many causes of tongue pain, so if your pain doesn’t go away on its own in a few days, or if it begins to interfere with your ability to eat or speak, consult with your healthcare provider. 

Anytime that your symptoms suddenly get worse, call your healthcare provider or 911. This is especially important if your tongue injury makes it difficult to breathe.  

Figuring out the causes of your tongue infection and the appropriate symptoms can be hard. Don’t hesitate to reach out for medical guidance. 

10 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.
  1. MedlinePlus. Canker sores.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Candida infections of the mouth, throat, and esophagus.

  3. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Lichen planus

  4. National Organization for Rare Disorders. Geographic tongue

  5. Cedars Sinai. Tongue cancer

  6. Kaiser Permanente. Tongue injury: care instructions

  7. Pontes, Hélder Antônio Rebelo. Oral manifestations of vitamin B12 deficiency: A case report. The Journal of the Canadian Dental Association.

  8. Lupus Foundation of American. What you need to know about Sjogren’s syndrome.

  9. MedlinePlus. Glossopharyngeal neuralgia.

  10. American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology. Oral allergy syndrome or pollen fruit syndrome.

By Kelly Burch
Kelly Burch is has written about health topics for more than a decade. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and more.