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Swollen Tongue: A Painful and Possibly Dangerous Health Problem

Updated on March 25, 2017
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a teacher with a first class honors degree in biology. She writes about human biology and the scientific basis of disease.

A healthy tongue that has fissures, or cracks; people with a fissured tongue have an increased risk of developing a geographic tongue
A healthy tongue that has fissures, or cracks; people with a fissured tongue have an increased risk of developing a geographic tongue | Source

The Problem With Tongue Swelling

A swollen tongue is often a painful or an uncomfortable condition. The swelling may be a minor problem. On the other hand, it may be dangerous. A very enlarged tongue can block the airway at the back of the throat and stop air from reaching the lungs.

There are several reasons why a tongue may swell, including an allergic reaction, trauma to the tongue, nutritional deficiencies, and the presence of certain infections and diseases. In some people, the tongue periodically swells due to a hereditary problem.

Ten days is often quoted as the longest time that should be waited before someone gets a diagnosis and treatment for an enlarged tongue. This is only true if the swelling is mild, however. More serious swelling requires earlier treatment. Someone with a swollen tongue that lasts longer than ten days, that occurs repeatedly, or that is accompanied by other symptoms should seek medical attention. If the swelling is rapid or severe, the condition requires emergency treatment to prevent the airway from being blocked.

A soybean allergy may cause a swollen tongue or throat in some people, as I know from personal experience.
A soybean allergy may cause a swollen tongue or throat in some people, as I know from personal experience. | Source

Any tongue swelling that produces drooling or that causes difficulty in breathing, swallowing, chewing, or talking requires prompt medical attention.

An Allergic Reaction

A swollen tongue is often part of an allergic reaction to foods, drinks, medications, toothpastes, mouthwashes, breath fresheners, or even material in dentures or retainers. The throat and lips may also become swollen during the allergic reaction. Medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or ACE inhibitors (which are taken to lower high blood pressure) are known to cause an allergic response and an enlarged tongue in some people.

Sometimes a swollen tongue may indicate a problem that extends beyond the mouth. It may be the first sign of anaphylaxis. This is a severe and very dangerous allergic reaction which affects the whole body, takes only seconds or minutes to develop, and is life threatening. In this condition both the tongue and lips may swell and the person usually has trouble breathing due to swelling in the throat. The person may also have a rapid heartbeat and low blood pressure. In addition, the person may wheeze, develop hives, and feel dizzy, weak, and faint. The skin may turn blue due to lack of oxygen.

Allergies to food, medications, and insect bites and stings are the leading causes of anaphylaxis. Rapid treatment with epinephrine is essential. People who have been diagnosed with a serious allergy usually carry an epinephrine auto-injector around with them.

Anaphylaxis

Other Causes of a Swollen Tongue

Other conditions besides allergies may cause a swollen tongue. These include nutritional deficiencies, such as a lack of sufficient iron, vitamin B12, or vitamin B3, infections, damage to the tongue by trauma, such as from a burn or tongue piercing, irritation by hot and spicy foods and drinks, irritation caused by drinking alcohol or smoking, and an infection in the mouth.

A swollen tongue can also be a symptom of disorders such as hypothyroidism, pituitary gland problems, Down syndrome, and some types of cancer. Hypothyroidism is a disorder in which the thyroid gland doesn't produce enough thyroid hormone. One of the functions of the pituitary gland is to control the thyroid gland, so problems with this gland can also cause a swollen tongue.

Some people have an inherited tendency for the tongue to swell, which it may do periodically and with no obvious cause. This condition is known as hereditary angioedema. "Angioedema" means swelling below the skin surface in the tongue, mouth, throat, and other areas of the body due to fluid accumulation.

Rarely, a tongue may swell due to the collection of abnormal proteins in the tongue in a disease called primary amyloidosis or due to the presence of a tumour in the tongue.

An underactive thyroid gland produces a disorder called hypothyroidism and can result in a swollen tongue.
An underactive thyroid gland produces a disorder called hypothyroidism and can result in a swollen tongue. | Source

How the Pituitary Gland Controls the Thyroid Gland

Glossitis

A swollen tongue is sometimes a symptom of a disorder called glossitis. "Glossitis" means inflammation of the tongue. Inflammation involves increased blood flow, heat, pain, and redness.

In glossitis, the tongue is red as well as swollen. It may have a smooth or glossy appearance because the papillae—the small bumps on the upper surface of the tongue—disappear. Glossitis may affect the whole tongue or only certain areas.

Glossitis may develop due to allergies, infections, injuries, irritants, or hormonal changes. It may also appear as a symptom of Sjogren syndrome. In this autoimmune condition, salivary glands are destroyed, creating a dry mouth. The dry mouth is technically known as xerostomia.

Glossitis involves inflammation and loss of papillae on the tongue.
Glossitis involves inflammation and loss of papillae on the tongue. | Source

Geographic Tongue: A Special Case of Glossitis

About 2% to 3% of the population suffers from geographic tongue, which is a special case of glossitis. In this condition the tongue has smooth red patches that lack papillae. The patches are often slightly swollen. The red areas have an irregular shape that resembles the appearance of countries on a map of the world. They are usually bordered by white, wavy lines or other shapes that are slightly raised above the red areas. The white lines often look like the outines of continents.

The white color in a geographic tongue comes from excess keratin, a protective protein made by cells on the surface of the tongue. The excess keratin sometimes appears in people who don't have geographic tongue as well.

The positions of the red areas on a geographic tongue change frequently—sometimes daily—as they disappear in one area and then appear in another. The patches are said to migrate around the tongue. For this reason geographic tongue is also known as benign migratory glossitis. The condition is said to be benign because it's harmless. The symptoms sometimes last for months before they disappear and then may reappear at a later time.

An especially interesting example of a geographic tongue
An especially interesting example of a geographic tongue | Source

Cause of a Geographic Tongue

The cause of geographic tongue is unknown. The disorder sometimes runs in families and is more common in people with a fissured tongue (one which has furrows or cracks) and perhaps in people that have psoriasis. There have been suggestions that geographic tongue is triggered by factors such as nutritional deficiencies, medications, oral irritants, allergies, stress, and hormonal changes such as those that occur during a woman's monthly cycle. The condition often causes no discomfort, but it sometimes produces a burning sensation that is made worse by eating irritating foods.

Another example of a geographic tongue
Another example of a geographic tongue | Source

The treatment for a swollen tongue depends on its cause. If you have tongue swelling that concerns you, make sure that you see a doctor for a diagnosis and treatment recommendations. The treatments described below are given for general interest only.

Possible Treatments for a Swollen Tongue

An epinephrine injection is often given to treat a severally swollen tongue that is caused by an allergic reaction. For milder allergic reactions, taking antihistamines may solve the problem. If the swelling is caused by an allergy, the allergen must be avoided in the future to prevent the tongue from swelling again. Allergy tests can help to identify the allergen. Without an allergy test, reviewing what entered the mouth shortly before the tongue began to swell may be helpful.

Supplements may be prescribed to correct nutritional deficiencies and infections are often treated with antibiotics or antifungal medicines. Corticosteroids may be prescribed to reduce swelling and NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin and ibuprofen) may be taken to reduce inflammation and pain—provided the person isn't allergic to them. Treating other health disorders causing the swollen tongue, such as hypothyroidism, will also relieve the swelling.

To avoid further damage, hot and irritant foods and drinks should be avoided. Toothpaste should be gentle and contain as few additives as possible. Maintaining good oral hygiene is important.

Hot and spicy foods like chili peppers can irritate the tongue.
Hot and spicy foods like chili peppers can irritate the tongue. | Source

Tongue Swelling After Piercing

The tongue often swells temporarily after a piercing. Here are some strategies that people use to reduce the swelling. Some of them may help with swelling from other causes while someone is waiting for treatments such as antibiotics to work.

  • Place ice shavings in the mouth. Allow them to melt instead of actively sucking them. Don't put whole ice cubes in the mouth, which may be hard to manipulate with a swollen tongue.
  • Gently swill ice water in your mouth.
  • Rinse with a gentle antibacterial mouthwash that doesn’t contain alcohol. Dilute the mouthwash if necessary.
  • Salt water rinses are controversial, with some people advocating the use of a dilute salt solution and others saying that it makes the situation worse.

Ice shavings can soothe an inflamed and swollen tongue. Ice cubes should be broken up before being put into the mouth.
Ice shavings can soothe an inflamed and swollen tongue. Ice cubes should be broken up before being put into the mouth. | Source

Have you ever had a swollen tongue?

See results
A healthy tongue is very useful!
A healthy tongue is very useful! | Source

A Minor or a Dangerous Disorder

A swollen tongue should always be treated with care and attention. The condition may be mild and only slightly uncomfortable and it may disappear without treatment or with only minor help. On the other hand, a swollen tongue may be a painful or even dangerous condition that makes breathing difficult, depending on how much swelling is present and on how quickly it develops.

The tongue is important in food manipulation, taste, and speech. It normally does its jobs well and without problems. Since it has the ability to block the passage of air—as it does every time we swallow—it's important that it doesn't enlarge significantly. It's always a good idea to find the cause of a swollen tongue if possible in order to avoid the problem in the future.

References

© 2012 Linda Crampton

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    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Yes, it can sometimes be a horrible condition to experience. It's certainly unpleasant to have a swollen tongue! Thanks for the visit, Louise.

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 7 months ago from Norfolk, England

      Goodness, sounds horrible. Thankfully, I've never suffered with a swollen tongue. I hope I never do!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the comment, Ian. I hope you find a medical explanation for your condition. It would be great to get a diagnosis and appropriate treatment to stop your tongue from swelling. Good luck.

    • profile image

      Ian 8 months ago

      My tongue swells at least once a month, to the point of not been able to speak or drink. Have been to the specialists and had all the blood work and tests done but they still can't find out what is going on. Your article greatly helps me into trying to discover my medical condition.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 15 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Rajesh, I'm not a doctor and can't diagnose health problems. Please visit a physician and explain your situation to him or her. The doctor should be able to help you. Good luck.

    • profile image

      Rajesh 15 months ago

      I have white hairy tongue for about 5 months and it is same till now what should i do? I am really so worried about it plz help me out

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 21 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the visit, peachpurple.

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 21 months ago from Home Sweet Home

      my son frequently has geographic tongue, thank for writing such a detail hub

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment and the tweet, Aladdins Cave!

    • Aladdins Cave profile image

      Aladdins Cave 2 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

      Very very good Hub

      Thank you, so good, I'm going to Tweet it. Everyone should read this

      Cheers from DOWNUNDER

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is definitely something that you should discuss with your doctor, pancakes345. You need to find out what is causing your tongue to swell so frequently. A doctor should be able to identify the cause of the problem and suggest ways to treat it.

    • profile image

      pancakes345 3 years ago

      My tongue is always sewelling up and I don't know the reason for it . It makes it hard for me to chew, swallow, talk properly, and I don't know what to do ....... this happens very offten.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Thomas. As I say in the article, vitamin deficiencies can cause the tongue to swell and irritation by spicy foods and alcohol may cause the tongue to enlarge, often temporarily. You need to consult a doctor about your particular case, though, since it sounds like your tongue has a tendency to swell. The doctor can discuss any dangers with you and describe the precautions that you should take.

    • profile image

      THOMAS 4 years ago

      I had minor swelling while having excess alcohol. Is that can be dangerous? Initially i'l be having eating spicy food but in a day it get solved. I once consulted a doctor and he told me its vitamin deficency. Is that fine. occasional drinking wont cause any problem rite?

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      That is another scary story, mommytalks. I'm glad that you found the reason for your allergy. At least you know what food to avoid now!

    • mommytalks profile image

      mommytalks 5 years ago from Phoenix, AZ

      My tongue swelled up twice, apparently I am allergic to red peppers (not green). In addition to being quite annoying, I spoke with a lisp for days on end ;)

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      That is a very scary story, Jackie! What a horrible feeling it must have been to have both your tongue and throat swollen!

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 5 years ago from The Beautiful South

      I got this from an allergic reaction from clonidine which is what hospitals all near me use to lower blood pressure. throat and tongue and very scary!

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, Peggy. I appreciate the comment and the votes. Yes, a swollen tongue is certainly an unpleasant condition, and can be scary too!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Very informative hub about something that no one would wish to experience...but good to know about just in case. Voted up, useful and interesting.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the rating and the share, Nell! I'm glad that you had a relatively mild case of anaphylaxis. I've had allergic reactions, but I've never experienced anaphylactic shock and I hope I never do!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 5 years ago from England

      Hi, Alicia, great information about swollen tongues. I have a thyroid illness but luckily it didn't give me a swollen tongue, but I did have a goitre. a few years ago I developed a 'mild' case of anaphylactic syndrome, I say syndrome because by the time the doctor got there he gave me some tablets and not a jab, my face swelled up, my eyes disappeared into my swollen lids and my lips looked like mick jagger! the cause? a sweet little baby bunny rabbit! great stuff rated up and shared!

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, teaches12345. There are students at my school who carry an Epipen with them, and we also have one in the school office in case of an emergency. We've never had a student go into anaphylactic shock yet, but the possibility is there. It's a scary thought! Thank you for the comment.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      I have never heard of this condition and so glad you wrote a hub on it. I do know people who are allergic to foods or bee stings and carry an epi-pen with them at all times. People should be aware that they can grow into an allergy and not know it until they have a reaction. Thankful there are solutions for these events.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, writer20. Yes, a person would have to be very careful with a serious food allergy like yours! Thank you for the votes and the comment.

    • writer20 profile image

      Joyce Haragsim 5 years ago from Southern Nevada

      Great hub, I have an alergy to shrimp and was warned by a doctor to watch out for a swelling tongue, I never go near shrimp now. Vote up,interesting and useful.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the visit and the comment, and for the vote too, Martie! Yes, a swollen tongue can be very painful.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 5 years ago from South Africa

      Ouch! What a horrible condition. Thanks for bringing this under our attention, Alicia.

      Voted up and excellent, as always.