Causes of a Swollen Tongue

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A swollen tongue typically occurs as a result of inflammation or tissue damage. Both inflammation and tissue damage cause a leakage of fluid into tissue. When the site is your tongue, the leakage of fluid causes your tongue to swell.

While most causes of a swollen tongue are not considered an emergency, you will likely require medical attention. Rapid swelling of your tongue is a life-threatening emergency usually due to an allergic reaction.

Because there are many causes for developing a swollen tongue, it is important to seek medical attention as the cause may also have other health implications that can impact your quality of life if not properly treated.

Common Causes for Developing a Swollen Tongue

While a swelling tongue is most commonly associated with an allergic reaction. There are many other common reasons 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. Swelling of your tongue in this instance is usually accompanied by the swelling of your face or lips and is referred to as angioedema. Other symptoms of this condition include itching, 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.

Source:

American Academy of Allergy. Asthma and Immunology. Anaphylaxis. http://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/library/allergy-library/anaphylaxis.aspx".

First Consult. (2014). Glossitis. http://www.clinicalkey.com (Subscription Required).

Medline Plus. Glossitis. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001053.htm.

Medline Plus. Tongue Problems. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001053.htm.