A burning tongue, or burning mouth syndrome (BMS), is a condition that causes a sensation of burning in the mouth. People with this condition often describe the burn as feeling similar to a hot drink scald. There are several known causes of BMS, but the reason for its onset can be unclear. The treatment will depend on the cause.
According to the American Academy of Oral Medicine (AAOM), approximately 2 percent of people in the United States have BMS. It can affect the following parts of the mouth:
- the roof of the mouth
- inside of the cheeks
In this article, we look at the causes of a burning tongue and discuss home remedies and medical treatments for BMS.
Some people with a burning tongue may have scalded their mouth with a hot drink or piece of food, in which case they do not have BMS.
The pain or discomfort of a minor physical burn may remain for several hours or more, but it will typically resolve without treatment.
Causes of BMS
True BMS may be primary, meaning that it results from a direct cause, or secondary, which means that the cause is indirect.
According to the Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center, the primary form of BMS results from damage to the nerves that control taste and pain sensations.
Secondary BMS may occur because of other medical conditions or treatments, including:
- allergies to specific foods or dental products
- anxiety or depression
- dry mouth
- gastroesophageal reflux disease
- geographic tongue
- an underactive thyroid, called hypothyroidism
- medications, such as high blood pressure medicines
- mouth infections
- nutritional deficiencies
Other secondary causes may include a person's habits, such as:
- biting the tip of the tongue frequently
- consuming too many acidic foods or drinks
- grinding the teeth on a regular basis
- overbrushing the tongue
- overusing mouthwash or abrasive oral hygiene products
- wearing ill-fitting dentures
In many cases, the cause of BMS is unclear.
The symptoms of BMS, including a burning tongue, may:
- appear suddenly or develop over time
- come and go or remain constant
- be mild, moderate, or severe
- improve when eating or drinking
BMS commonly affects the tongue, but people may also experience discomfort in the:
- roof of the mouth
- inside of the cheeks
It is also possible to have symptoms that affect the whole mouth.
Common BMS symptoms include:
- a burning or scalding sensation in the mouth
- a bitter or metallic taste
- a dry mouth
- difficulty swallowing
- increased thirst
- loss of taste
Many people can find relief by using home remedies, including the following:
Take fluids and ice
The pain of BMS sometimes improves when eating or drinking.
To alleviate symptoms, people can drink plenty of water and other fluids throughout the day or suck on ice chips.
Doing this will also reduce the sensation of dry mouth and may temporarily mask bad tastes.
Avoid problematic foods and drinks
Strong-tasting or harsh foods and beverages can irritate the mouth. Limiting or avoiding the following foods can be beneficial:
- acidic foods, such as tomatoes and citrus fruits
- acidic drinks, including citrus juices, sodas, and coffee
- alcohol and products containing alcohol
- spicy foods
- items containing cinnamon or mint, including herbal teas, candies, and baked goods
Change dental hygiene products and habits
Oral health products, including toothpaste and mouthwashes, can irritate the lining of the mouth.
It is advisable to use flavor-free toothpaste that is suitable for sensitive teeth and to limit the use of mouthwash.
Stopping other oral habits, such as biting the tip of the tongue, may also help.
Smoking tobacco can irritate the delicate skin inside the mouth. It is best to avoid all products that contain tobacco to reduce or prevent BMS symptoms.
Address medical conditions
Several conditions contribute to BMS. People should discuss home remedies and medical treatments for these conditions with a doctor.
Controlling the underlying issue may improve symptoms.
Stress, anxiety, and depression may cause or worsen the symptoms of BMS. In turn, BMS may increase stress levels because it affects a person's quality of life.
People with BMS should try to reduce stress and seek help for other mental health issues where possible.
It is not always possible to fully alleviate the symptoms of BMS, and some people will need to learn how to manage their discomfort. It can be helpful to seek support and advice from others, including a therapist or a chronic pain support group.
Risk factors for BMS include:
- Sex: According to the AAOM, females are up to seven times more likely to have BMS than males.
- Age: Older adults have a higher risk of BMS because they are more likely to wear dentures and have other underlying health issues.
- Being postmenopausal: People who have gone through menopause are more at risk. Researchers estimate that
18 to 33 percentof postmenopausal females have BMS.
Other risk factors include:
- having food allergies
- wearing dentures or undergoing dental work
- experiencing recent illness
- taking certain medications
- having specific medical conditions
- being stressed or anxious
BMS does not typically cause complications, but it is possible that people with the condition will experience:
- anxiety or depression
- difficulty eating or swallowing
- sleep problems
Individuals may be able to reduce their risk of BMS by:
- avoiding tobacco
- ensuring that dentures fit correctly
- limiting or avoiding alcohol and acidic foods and drinks
- managing other health conditions
- using oral hygiene products for sensitive teeth
There is no guaranteed way to prevent all cases of BMS.
Doctors usually diagnose BMS by ruling out other medical conditions.
There is no known cure for primary BMS, but treatment for secondary BMS generally focuses on managing the underlying condition. This treatment may include taking nutritional supplements or medications.
People may use the following to manage the pain of primary or secondary BMS:
The AAOM say that between one-half and two-thirds of people with BMS will experience some level of improvement in their burning tongue or other symptoms after a few weeks to several months of treatment.
People who have chronic BMS, which lasts for several years, are typically able to stabilize and manage their symptoms. Symptoms can sometimes spontaneously disappear.
There is no link between BMS and the development of oral cancer.
People should see a doctor or dentist to help them determine the underlying cause of their BMS and develop a treatment program for symptom relief.