Causes of a Swollen Tongue

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 the tongue often is a life-threatening emergency that's 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.

causes of a swollen tongue
Illustration by Jessica Olah, Verywell

Reasons You Might Develop a Swollen Tongue

Swelling of the tongue most often is a symptom of an allergic reaction. However, there is a bevy of other potential causes, some fairly common, others rare.




Try These at Home for Mild Swelling of Your Tongue

For a mildly 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.

When a Swollen Tongue 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.
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