A tongue laceration refers to a deep cut or tear in the surface of the tongue. It can occur anywhere on the tongue, including on its underside. A cut tongue can cause significant pain and bleeding.

Tongue lacerations occur when a person accidentally bites their tongue. This may occur:

  • while eating
  • while playing sports
  • during sleep
  • during a seizure
  • while under dental anesthesia
  • as a result of an injury, such as a fall or vehicle collision
  • as a result of self-harm

In this article, we discuss the symptoms and treatment of tongue lacerations. We also cover first aid and aftercare tips, potential complications, and ways of preventing mouth injuries.

A doctor shining a light into a boy's mouth to examine a tongue laceration.Share on Pinterest
Image credit: Getty Images

Tongue lacerations can cause significant pain, bleeding, and swelling. They usually occur on the tip or middle section of the tongue. As a person uses their tongue to talk, drink, and swallow food, these symptoms can be very disruptive.

Lacerations at the back of the tongue are less common, as this area is more difficult to reach. However, injuries to this area of the tongue can be more serious due to the presence of a major nerve.

Without treatment, a tongue laceration may become infected. The signs of an infection include:

  • fever
  • swelling or throbbing
  • clear or white discharge

If a person cuts their tongue, they should administer first aid treatment as soon as possible. They can do so by following these steps:

  1. washing the hands thoroughly with warm water and soap
  2. rinsing the mouth with clean water to get rid of any debris
  3. applying a gauze pad or clean cloth to the laceration
  4. applying firm, consistent pressure to stop the bleeding while tipping the head forward to avoid swallowing blood

Once the bleeding has stopped, people can try to reduce swelling and pain by either sucking on an ice cube or wrapping it in a clean cloth and applying it to the cut.

Over the next few days, it is important to monitor the laceration for signs of infection, such as pus, fever, or swelling.

A person should head to their nearest emergency department immediately if they have a severe tongue laceration. Signs of a severe tongue laceration include:

  • significant bleeding that does not stop after applying pressure
  • bleeding that starts again after it had stopped
  • a large open wound
  • a wound that has completely pierced the tongue or severed part of it
  • difficulty swallowing, breathing, or opening and closing the mouth
  • severe pain that does not improve or respond to over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication

A person should also see a doctor if the wound occurred as a result of a foreign object piercing the tongue. If the object was dirty, the wound may become infected.

It is vital that people seek help as soon as possible for severe lacerations, particularly if the tongue is partially or completely severed.

In a 2015 case study, doctors successfully reattached a partially amputated tongue with sutures. However, the authors note that people should seek treatment within 8 hours of injury, as a delay of 24 hours or more may result in negative outcomes.

If a person comes into a hospital or clinic with a fresh tongue laceration, a doctor will administer first aid. They will clean the wound, remove any foreign objects, dirt, or debris, and stop any bleeding.

The doctor will visually examine the injury to determine the best course of treatment. They may also look for signs of infection or nerve damage.

Depending on the severity of the laceration, the doctor may use stitches, or sutures, to close it. Local anesthetic can numb the area so that a person does not experience as much pain. A doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat or prevent infections.

Although sutures are the standard recommended treatment for tongue lacerations longer than 2 centimeters (cm) (0.79 inches), in some cases, doctors have used other methods.

In a 2013 case study, doctors treated a 7-year-old boy with a large tongue laceration. The boy’s parent refused treatment with sutures, so the doctors repaired the child’s tongue with a tissue adhesive. According to the report, the adhesive achieved acceptable results.

The time it takes a tongue laceration to heal varies depending on the severity of the injury. Minor lacerations can heal quickly, whereas severe injuries may take several weeks to heal.

If a doctor closes a laceration with absorbable stitches, these may take 4–8 weeks for the body to absorb. A healthcare professional will need to remove nylon and other nonabsorbable stitches after the wound has closed.

A person can aid the healing process by following their doctor’s aftercare advice. The doctor may recommend:

  • keeping the tongue still as often as possible
  • rinsing the mouth with a saltwater solution after every meal
  • applying a cold compress to the injury site a few times a day
  • taking OTC pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen
  • eating foods that are soft and easy to swallow, such as yogurt, eggs, and cooked vegetables
  • avoiding acidic, spicy, and salty foods
  • avoiding tobacco products and alcohol

Many cuts to the tongue heal without complications. However, as with any open wound, tongue lacerations carry the risk of infection.

Keeping the wound clean can reduce this risk, but if a person notices swelling, pus, or fever, they should speak to a doctor.

Tongue lacerations can also result in scarring or swelling. Inflammation may occur near sutures, particularly if a doctor used nonabsorbable sutures. This symptom may improve with time.

Deep cuts that damage nerves may impair the tongue’s function, making it more difficult to speak or swallow.

People can prevent mouth injuries by:

  • wearing a helmet, face mask, and mouthguard while playing contact sports
  • chewing slowly, taking care not to bite the tongue
  • avoiding speaking or multitasking while chewing food
  • reducing the risk of injuries from car collisions by wearing a seat belt and using age-appropriate car seats for children

People with epilepsy and other seizure disorders can prevent tongue injuries by wearing a mouthguard during sleep, taking prescribed medication, and following the seizure care steps that their healthcare team has outlined.

Tongue lacerations occur when a person cuts their tongue. This injury may occur while eating, during a seizure, or as a result of a fall or accident. People can often treat minor tongue lacerations at home, but lacerations longer than 2 cm may require sutures.

It is important that people closely monitor tongue lacerations while they heal. Aftercare for tongue injuries includes eating soft food, avoiding smoking, and rinsing the mouth after meals.

A person should see a doctor if they experience signs of an infection, such as swelling, redness, warmth, or pus.