Tongue ulcers are a form of open sore that arise when there is a break or erosion along the surface of the tongue, though these kinds of sores can appear in many places in the mouth.
Ulcers can happen elsewhere in the body as well: peptic ulcers, for instance, arise when there are holes or breaks in the protective lining of the small intestine, and bedsores happen when prolonged pressure and friction erode away sections of the skin.
The good news is that tongue ulcers or mouth ulcers are one of the more harmless varieties you can experience; the bad news is that ulcers on the tongue are still unpleasant at best and care should be taken to avoid aggravating them.
Let’s take a look at what causes tongue ulcers and how best to treat them.
In this article:
Symptoms that May Occur with Tongue Ulcers
The most obvious symptom of a mouth ulcer is the sore itself. It will appear as round or oval, and is white or yellow in the middle with a red border that may be hard to tell apart from the surrounding surface of the mouth.
These are commonly found under the tongue, inside the cheeks or lips, on the gums, on the soft palate (roof of the mouth), or on the sides or surface of the tongue itself.
It is not uncommon to experience a tingling or burning sensation in the area a few days prior to the ulcer actually appearing. Once it shows up, the ulcer will be painful and irritating when it brushes against your teeth, braces, food, or toothbrush.
A mouth ulcer is essentially a more severe form of canker sore, and as a result the two share most symptoms.
There are a few ways to tell a mouth ulcer and a canker sore apart:
- Mouth ulcers are larger and deeper and often have a more obvious border to them.
- Mouth ulcers can take up to six weeks to heal and risk leaving a scar.
- Mouth ulcers are much more painful.
It is possible for a canker sore to develop into a mouth ulcer, but mouth ulcers can also emerge on their own.
7 Possible Causes of Mouth and Tongue Ulcers
So what causes tongue ulcers? Besides canker sores, there are a number of different possible triggers that can make a mouth ulcer appear.
- Oral thrush: This is a condition caused by an overgrowth of the fungus Candida albicans within the mouth. The fungus creates white, creamy-colored cuts along the inner cheek and tongue that can develop into ulcers if not treated. Aside from the white lesions, oral thrush also presents with cracking at the corners of the mouth, loss of taste, and cottonmouth.
- Injury: Minor injuries can sometimes develop into canker sores or mouth ulcers. Over-eager brushing, dental work, biting your cheek or tongue, or sporting accidents are all possible causes.
- Food sensitivities: For obvious reasons, the surface of your mouth reacts to the food you eat. In some people, foods like chocolate, coffee, strawberries, eggs, nuts, cheese, and spicy or acidic food can provoke enough irritation to form a sore.
- Allergies: Your mouth is home to lots of bacteria, and sometimes your body wants them out. The ulcer that forms is a result of tissue getting caught in the way.
- Bacteria and viruses: Various illnesses can cause mouth ulcers to appear. The most common candidate is called Helicobacter pylori, the same culprit behind peptic ulcers and herpes. Strictly speaking, herpes causes cold sores, which, while not related to canker sores, can develop into more persistent wounds like a mouth ulcer if left unaddressed.
- Immune disorders: If the immune system is not functioning correctly, mouth ulcers can sometimes be one of the results. Autoimmune conditions can cause your body’s defenses to attack mouth tissue, and immune-weakening conditions can allow opportunistic infections to wear away at the mouth.
- Chemical sensitivity: Some toothpastes or mouthwashes contain a chemical called sodium lauryl sulfate. Although useful for oral hygiene, it can sometimes aggravate the mouth and create canker sores or ulcers on the tongue.
Natural Remedies for Tongue Ulcers
An oral ulcer does not normally warrant medical intervention, but medication can be prescribed if there is an infection serving as the underlying cause.
Outside of that, cauterization can be used to forcibly close an ulcer if it gets too large or is being overly problematic.
Fortunately, most of the time treatment is just a matter of keeping the ulcer soothed long enough for it to heal on its own.
Here are some options on how to get rid of tongue ulcers.
- Rinse: An ulcer is basically a form of open wound, so it’s important to keep it clean while it heals to avoid complications. A saltwater rinse can be used to accomplish this. You can also try using a baking soda rinse.
- Paste: Milk of magnesia, baking soda, or salt can be used to create a paste to apply to the ulcer. It will be uncomfortable but can help soothe the area. The paste should be applied with a swab, and it’s best if you don’t swallow it.
- Topical anesthetic: Since tongue and mouth ulcers can be especially painful, you may need over-the-counter relief. Alternatively, you can try applying ice to soothe the area—but remember not to apply ice directly to your skin.
- Mouthwash: Some mouthwash or rinse products contain steroids, which help ease swelling and inflammation.
- Avoid triggers: Keeping the sore from being further irritated is very important for minimizing the time spent healing. Avoiding alcohol, spicy or acidic foods, and smoking is essential to making sure your ulcer doesn’t stick around longer than it has to. When brushing your teeth, be very gentle and take care when brushing around the ulcer so the bristles don’t provoke it. If you use an electric toothbrush, it may be advisable to switch to a regular one until the ulcer heals, since they give more control over force and speed.
When to See a Doctor
As mentioned, a tongue ulcer in and of itself is rarely cause for concern. However, some conditions capable of creating an ulcer are more dangerous than others if left unaddressed.
Pay attention to any symptoms you may be experiencing other than the ulcer, and consult your doctor for tongue ulcer treatment if any of the following apply:
- Recurrent ulcers or canker sores, especially if new ones appear before the old ones go away
- The ulcer extends into the outer lips themselves (i.e., where the edge of your lips meets the skin of your face)
- The pain is too strong for over-the-counter or home remedies to work
- You have difficulty eating, drinking, or swallowing
- The ulcer is accompanied by a high fever
- Pus starts to appear in the ulcer
- Your breath suddenly becomes foul
If the ulcer is aggravated by a feature of your mouth such as a sharp tooth, braces, or another piece of dental hardware, consult your dentist or orthodontist as appropriate.
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“Canker Sore – Causes,” Mayo Clinic web site, March 19, 2015; http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/canker-sore/basics/causes/con-20021262, last accessed February 8, 2016.
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