There are different types of tongue ulcers, such as canker sores. Depending on the cause, they may clear up without treatment. Over-the-counter (OTC) medications and home remedies may help ease the pain. In some cases, medical treatments may be necessary.

If tongue ulcers do not heal, it is best to contact a doctor for advice. Certain underling conditions can cause ulcers on the tongue.

Read on to learn more about the symptoms of tongue ulcers and how to identify them. This article also looks at causes of tongue ulcers, treatment options, and more.

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Tongue ulcers are sores on the tongue.

A 2019 article notes that canker sores, a common type of tongue ulcer, 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 2–4 sores at a time.

Minor canker sores are usually a few millimeters wide. However, if they measure 1–3 centimeters, medical professionals refer to them as major canker sores. Major canker sores account for around 10% of recurrent cases. Herpetiform canker sores, which are the size of a pinhead, also account for around 10% of cases.

Sometimes tongue ulcers may develop due to an underlying medical condition. If tongue ulcers do not clear up on their own, or if they keep coming back, it is best to contact a doctor for an accurate diagnosis.

The main symptom a person may notice with a tongue ulcer 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 may be white and roundish. If a person has a canker sore, 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. The appearance of the ulcer can help a doctor to identify the type and advise on suitable treatments.

An ulcer located on the tongue.Share on Pinterest
This image shows a canker sore on the tongue.
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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) notes 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 found that around 46% of people with recurrent canker sores reported a family history.

If several ulcers on the tongue or elsewhere in the mouth occur alongside other symptoms, they may indicate an underlying condition such as:

Learn about the causes of ulcers on the side of the tongue.

Oral lichen planus

Oral lichen planus is an inflammatory condition that can cause a whitish, lacey rash in the mouth.

The condition can cause white patches in the mouth or on the gums or tongue. It can also cause symptoms affecting other parts of the body.

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 alongside fever and flu-like symptoms.

Crohn’s disease

Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). It can cause mouth ulcers, and symptoms such as:

  • diarrhea
  • stomach pain
  • blood in stool
  • tiredness
  • unexplained weight loss
  • high temperature
  • joint pain

Learn about how to recognize a Crohn’s disease flare up.

Celiac disease

Celiac disease can cause canker sores and other oral symptoms such as delayed dental development and dental defects.

Consuming a gluten-free diet can help reduce the frequency of canker sores due to celiac disease.

Weakened immune system

Having a weakened immune system can increase a person’s risk of tongue ulcers. Conditions such as lupus and HIV can weaken the immune system.

Behçet’s disease, which experts believe develops due to a problem with the immune system, can also cause tongue ulcers.


Some forms of ulcers on the tongue and in the mouth may be signs of oral cancer. Anyone with concerns about their symptoms should contact a doctor to get a diagnosis.

Learn more about what can cause canker sores on the tongue.

Some types of tongue ulcers, such as canker sores, can heal on their own. Researchers note that most canker sores heal in 3–10 days.

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

Other tips that may help include:

  • using a soft toothbrush
  • sucking on ice
  • drinking cool liquids
  • avoiding spicy foods or other foods that may make the ulcer more painful

Not all remedies are suitable for young children. It is best to contact a pharmacist or doctor for advice before treating tongue ulcers in children.


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.

If tongue ulcers are due to a medical condition, a person may need to treat the underlying cause. A doctor can provide an accurate diagnosis and advise on suitable treatments.

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

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 tongue ulcers or multiple ulcers that appear at once should contact 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.

Here are some frequently asked questions about tongue ulcers.

Are tongue ulcers and canker sores the same thing?

Canker sores are a type of tongue ulcer. However, not every tongue ulcer is a canker sore. If a person has an ulcer on their tongue that does not go away or that keeps coming back, it is important to contact a doctor for a diagnosis.

How do you make tongue ulcers go away?

Avoiding triggers, drinking cool drinks, and using a soft toothbrush can help a tongue ulcer heal and prevent further damage. OTC products such as benzocaine gel may also help.

What virus causes tongue ulcers?

Hand, foot, and mouth disease (HFMD) can cause tongue ulcers. Tongue ulcers are not typically due to a viral infection, but if a person has other symptoms alongside sores then medical treatment for a virus may be necessary.

Are tongue ulcers caused by stress?

Stress is a possible cause of tongue ulcers. Taking steps to manage stress may help to reduce recurring tongue ulcers.

Learn about stress-reduction strategies.

Do tongue sores mean you are sick?

In some cases, a sore on the tongue may be due to a virus or another underlying medical condition. However, they can also develop as a result of injury, such as biting or burning the tongue.

Can vitamin deficiency cause tongue or mouth ulcers?

Vitamin B12 or folate deficiency may cause ulcers in the mouth.

Tongue ulcers, or canker sores, 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 contact a doctor for a diagnosis and treatment.