Mouth ulcers, or canker sores, can sometimes appear on the tongue. Although a tongue ulcer will clear up on its own with time, some home remedies may help ease the symptoms.
People can also use over-the-counter (OTC) medications to alleviate pain.
In this article, we discuss tongue ulcers in more detail, including why they occur, their symptoms, and how to treat them.
We also look at how to identify them and when to see a doctor.
Tongue ulcers are whiteish sores on the tongue.
Also called canker sores, a 2019 article notes that these ulcers most often develop on the inside of the lips and cheeks. However, they can sometimes appear in other areas of the mouth, such as the gums, tongue, and roof of the mouth.
They can appear individually, or a person may experience between two and four at a time.
Minor canker sores are usually a few millimeters wide. However, if they measure 1–3 centimeters, healthcare professionals refer to them as major canker sores.
They are not contagious and cannot spread from person to person through contact or shared items.
The main symptom a person will notice is pain.
The pain may be worse if the ulcer comes into contact with an object, such as a toothbrush. Some foods can also aggravate the tongue ulcer, especially those that are spicy or acidic.
The ulcers themselves tend to be white and roundish. They are typically a few millimeters wide and appear slightly sunken.
Some ulcers may have an area of redness around their outer ring, especially if something irritates them.
There is no single cause of tongue ulcers. Instead, there are several potential triggers.
A person can develop tongue ulcers due to damage in the mouth that results from:
- biting the tongue
- injuries from dental work
- braces or retainers
- poorly fitting dentures
- burns from eating hot foods
- eating acidic or spicy foods
- brushing the teeth with a hard-bristled brush
The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) note that ulcers can also occur in the mouth due to:
People may also develop tongue ulcers when they first stop smoking.
There may also be a genetic factor in developing tongue ulcers. Research in Advances in Dermatology and Allergology states that people with certain genes may be more likely to experience recurring canker sores.
People with certain conditions who experience tongue ulcers should talk to their doctor. These conditions include:
Some forms of ulcers on the tongue and in the mouth may be signs of oral cancer. Anyone with concerns about their symptoms should speak with a doctor to get a diagnosis.
Tongue ulcers tend to heal on their own. Researchers note that most lesions heal in 4–14 days without treatment.
Although tongue ulcers tend to clear up on their own, various home remedies may help ease the symptoms during the healing process.
People can soothe tongue ulcers at home by rinsing the mouth with:
- clean water, especially after eating
- warm salt water
- baking soda dissolved in water
They can also try applying very cold water to the ulcer or sucking on ice chips.
Medical treatment for tongue ulcers generally focuses on easing the symptoms while identifying and treating any underlying conditions responsible for the ulcers.
OTC medications can be a helpful remedy for symptoms of a tongue ulcer. People can try using pain relievers, such as acetaminophen, or numbing gels, such as benzocaine.
However, the numbing action may make it harder to feel the tongue. People using the gel should, therefore, take care to avoid further injury to the tongue, such as by biting it.
Certain other conditions can cause an ulcer or sore to appear on the tongue.
Swollen taste buds
Swollen taste buds, or papillae, cause one or more of the taste buds to become swollen and tender or painful.
They occur when one taste bud becomes damaged. Trauma from biting, burning from hot temperatures, or bothersome foods can all cause this damage.
Oral lichen planus
Oral lichen planus is an inflammatory condition that can cause a whitish, lacey rash in the mouth.
According to the Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center, most people do not experience symptoms. However, others can have sores or ulcers in the mouth.
Some people may also experience symptoms that affect the arms and legs.
Hand, foot, and mouth disease
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HFMD is common in infants under the age of 5 years.
It can cause mouth sores to appear 1–2 days after a fever starts. The sores typically begin as small red spots in the back of the mouth.
Cold sores may occur inside the mouth, including on the tongue or inside the lips.
Cold sores occur due to an underlying viral infection that stays in the body. A range of triggers can cause outbreaks to occur from time to time.
It may not be possible to avoid every cause of tongue ulcers. However, people can take preventive measures against some causes.
These measures include:
- switching to a mild toothpaste
- using a toothbrush with soft bristles
- avoiding acidic or spicy foods
It is important to work with a doctor in each case. If a person experiences regular tongue ulcers, a doctor can help identify and treat any underlying conditions, which could help prevent further canker sores.
Anyone who experiences regular canker sores or multiple canker sores that appear at once should see a doctor.
The doctor can help identify any underlying conditions contributing to these sores.
A long lasting canker sore also requires medical attention in case it is a sign of a more serious condition.
Tongue ulcers are usually not a cause for concern. They are relatively common and have a number of causes and triggers. People who can identify their personal triggers may find it easier to prevent ulcers from forming.
Home remedies may help ease the symptoms or speed the healing process. Anyone with persistent sores that do not heal or sores that come back regularly should see a doctor for a diagnosis and treatment.