Burned Your Tongue? Here Are Tips on How to Heal It

Few things are as commonly experienced as a burned tongue. We have all done it: that impatient bite of pizza fresh from the oven, a quick sip of scalding hot coffee, delicious soup you can’t wait to try. Unfortunately, that hasty indulgence often leaves us with a throbbing tongue. So, how do we stop the burn? Let’s review everything you need to know after burning your tongue. Learn how to heal a burnt tongue, some helpful soothing remedies, and when you need to seek professional help.

Causes of burned tongue

The tongue is a complex sensory tool for eating, swallowing, talking, and breathing. It contains multiple nerves and other structures that relay information to the brain. The tongue surface is covered by tiny sensory receptors called papillae or taste buds. Multiple types of papillae cover the tongue's surface and help detect:

  • Taste
  • Temperature
  • Texture
  • Pain

The burning sensation can be caused by spicy food; however, a burn on the tongue is most commonly caused by trauma. It can occur when people eat or drink foods that are too hot, often while on the go or multitasking. Being distracted and eating in a rush can cause you to miss the signs that your food is too hot, leaving your taste buds swollen, numb, or in pain.

Heating food in a microwave may also cause a burnt tongue. Microwave ovens tend to heat food unevenly, and often, one area of food is hotter than the rest. You may not notice the temperature difference until the food is already in your mouth.

Degrees of tongue burns

Some tongue burns are temporary and go away within a few hours after eating hot or spicy foods. However, extremely hot temperatures can cause a traumatic injury that lasts longer. Depending on the severity of the injury, tongue burns can be divided into different degrees of burn:

  • First-degree burn. This burn is usually minor and involves the superficial layer of the tongue. It can appear red and swollen but tends to heal within a few days. Most tongue burns are first-degree.
  • Second-degree burn. This burn is deeper than the top layer of tissue. It may involve blisters, swelling, and more pain than a first-degree burn. It also usually takes longer to heal.
  • Third-degree burn. This burn is the most severe injury. It usually affects deeper layers. The burned may appear white, black, or red. In some cases, the burn is deep enough to affect the nerve, causing severe swelling and excruciating pain. This burn may scar.

Symptoms of the burned tongue

The most common symptoms that occur with a burned tongue are:

  • Pain in the tongue
  • Numbness
  • Redness
  • Inflammation and swelling
  • Decreased sense of taste
  • A smooth area on the tongue due to a temporary loss of papillae

How to heal a burnt tongue

Most mouth burns will heal on their own. However, here are a few things you can do to stop the pain and help your tongue feel better faster.

How to heal a burnt tongue

Cool the burn

Your first instinct may be to grab something cool to drink. This is a good idea. A cool drink can help stop the heat from continuing to burn deeper into the tissues of the tongue. Sucking on ice chips or a popsicle can also help. However, you should avoid putting ice directly on the tongue, which can cause more irritation. Sipping on cool water for a few hours can help provide more relief.

Avoid irritants

Certain substances may cause more irritation to a burned tongue. Avoid things like:

  • Tobacco
  • Hot, spicy foods
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Mouthwashes containing alcohol
  • Highly acidic foods
  • Citrus fruits and juices

Use pain relief

Over-the-counter pain medicines such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), or aspirin (Bayer) can help reduce the pain and inflammation of a burnt tongue. Some numbing medications are also available over the counter (OTC). Topical benzocaine, or Orajel, can temporarily numb the area and reduce pain.

Use soothing remedies

Studies show that milk can help soothe a burning tongue after eating something spicy. It can coat the mouth and may soothe the burn more than water. Try sipping on a cold glass of milk or grabbing some yogurt.

Use honey

Honey is known for its soothing effects. However, a recent study also showed that it may be effective in inhibiting bacterial growth and treating many types of wounds, including burns. Honey is a natural substance that may improve the wound-healing process.

Use vitamin E

Vitamin E is useful for burns and can be applied directly or taken as a supplement. Studies suggest vitamin E can help improve wound healing. On severe burns, it may also help prevent secondary infections.

Swish with salt water

Rinsing or swishing with warm salt water is recommended for most mouth wounds, including ulcers and burns. Saltwater can help improve healing, reduce bacteria, and promote a healthier environment, which can help heal a burnt tongue faster.

Maintain oral hygiene

Maintaining a proper oral hygiene routine is crucial for keeping a wound clean. Brushing twice a day and flossing or using a water flosser helps reduce bacteria in the mouth. If you use mouth rinse, be certain it is alcohol-free. Alcohol can irritate a wound and cause more pain.

How long does a burned tongue take to heal

Most burnt tongues will heal on their own. First-degree burns are the most common and usually self-limit in about two weeks. Minor burns may only last a day or two. Second or third-degree burns are more severe. Since deeper tissue is involved, seeking medical attention may be necessary. These burns may take up to six weeks to completely heal.

Other conditions that may be confused with a burned tongue

Some oral conditions can mimic a burned tongue. If you have symptoms of a burnt tongue but haven't exposed your mouth to anything causing a burn, you may have burning mouth syndrome (BMS) or geographic tongue.

  • BMS is a chronic condition that causes a burning sensation on the tongue, roof of the mouth, or even cheeks. The symptoms usually occur every day for months.
  • Geographic tongue is an inflammatory disorder that can cause red areas on the top and sides of the tongue. It may look and feel like a burned area on your tongue.

Prevention

The best way to prevent a burnt tongue burn is to allow your food time to cool and test it before taking a big bite. Take small sips of a hot beverage to ensure the temperature is suitable. Also, drinks and food heated in a microwave can heat unevenly. Therefore, stir the food thoroughly and be cautious.

When to seek professional help

Most mouth burns are minor and do not require professional help. However, if you have symptoms of a second or third-degree burn, you should immediately see a doctor or dentist. These burns involve deeper tissues and may require specialized treatment.

Also, if your symptoms haven’t improved within a week, you should seek professional care. This includes symptoms like:

  • A new or worse fever
  • Pain, redness, or swelling that is getting more severe
  • Drainage or weeping from your tongue
  • Difficulty talking or breathing

These symptoms could mean you have developed a secondary infection that needs immediate care.

We have all burned our tongues. Our fast-paced way of life means burnt tongues are common. Try to be mindful while eating and check your food carefully. Allow your hot drink to cool a bit to avoid a burn. But if you do burn your tongue, quick action can help soothe the pain. So, grab something cool to stop the burn. Minor burns are most common and should heal rather quickly. But be sure to seek immediate medical attention for more severe burns. If a burn doesn’t get better within a week, any burn that causes severe swelling or other adverse reactions should be seen by a doctor or dentist as soon as possible. The best way to help heal a burnt tongue is to be gentle while it heals and avoid things that can further irritate the burn for a while. Time and tender care can go a long way in healing a tongue burn.

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