A swollen tongue is no fun. It can make daily activities, like speaking and eating, more difficult and painful. Swelling of the tongue can be caused by several different things, ranging from an allergic reaction to an infection. In this article, we'll discuss the causes of a swollen tongue and the symptoms associated with it. We'll also share tips on how to treat a swollen tongue caused by allergies and what options are available for long-term relief.
What Causes Tongue Swelling?
Tongue swelling can be caused by a variety of environmental and physical factors. It may also range in severity and nature depending on the cause behind it. Let's take a look at some of the most common reasons for a swollen tongue:
Allergies are among the most well-known causes of a swollen tongue. When exposure occurs, the immune system issues an inflammatory response to expel the allergen it perceives as dangerous. This can result in swelling, redness, and soreness on the sides of the tongue and in other parts of the body.
Trauma or Injury
Another common cause of a sore, swollen tongue is trauma or injury. If someone bites their tongue, or if an object like a toothbrush or dental appliance scrapes the tongue, it can lead to inflammation and pain on one side. In some cases, an infection may also develop as a result of an injury.
Autoimmune disorders like hypothyroidism, Sjogren's syndrome, and lichen planus can also cause tongue swelling. People with these conditions experience an overactive immune response that can lead to swelling, a burning sensation on the tongue, soreness, and cracked or discolored patches. When swollen tongues develop due to an autoimmune disorder, the swelling is usually more severe and can last for long periods of time.
Viral and Bacterial Infections
Bacterial infections can create inflammation in various parts of the body, including the tongue. Conditions of the mouth and throat such as strep, syphilis, herpes, gonorrhea, HPV and certain yeast infections irritate local tissues, resulting in swelling and soreness. A swollen tongue due to infection can sometimes be accompanied by a fever, headaches, or other body aches.
Tongue swelling is a side effect sometimes seen in those who are taking antibiotics, ACE inhibitors, or other prescribed medications. This can occur due to an allergic reaction, or because certain drugs may directly irritate the tongue’s delicate tissues.
Gastrointestinal Esophageal Reflux Disorder (GERD) is a condition in which stomach acid regurgitates into the esophagus. This can cause a burning sensation on one side of the tongue, as well as swelling and pain. If the acid persists for a long time, it can lead to further inflammation and mouth sores.
Alcohol, Tobacco, and Certain Foods
Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, smoking tobacco, as well as consuming shellfish, eggs, certain spicy foods, or citrus fruits, can also lead to tongue swelling. These irritants cause a sharp burning sensation on the tongue, and if left untreated, may develop into swelling.
A deficiency in certain vitamins like B-12 or iron can also trigger tongue swelling due to a lack of proper nourishment in the body. Symptoms of anemia, such as weakness and fatigue, often accompany swollen tongues that are caused by vitamin deficiencies.
Oral Care Products
The floss, toothpaste, mouthwash, or even the type of brush you use to clean your teeth can inflame the glands and tissues in your mouth, leading to tongue swelling. This is especially true if you use oral care products that contain harsh chemicals or strong fragrances.
How Do Allergies Cause A Swollen Tongue?
A swollen tongue is just one of many byproducts of an allergic reaction. When someone with allergies is exposed to an allergen, their body mistakes it as a threat. The same processes responsible for combating colds kick in to fight that substance, resulting in inflammation throughout the body.
Allergy-induced irritation can manifest as a number of symptoms, such as swelling, red eyes, sneezing, constricted airways - and sometimes, a swollen tongue.
The swelling that occurs in the tongue during an allergic reaction can be attributed to the release of natural chemicals, like histamine, throughout the body. These molecules are regulated by the immune system and can spike when it responds to perceived threats such as allergens. Histamine is known for its inflammatory properties, causing tissue irritation, muscle tightening, and itching.
Symptoms of a Swollen Tongue
A swollen tongue is usually indicative of a greater problem in the body and is more of a symptom itself. But several characteristics can be used to define a swollen tongue- we'll go through the most prominent ones below.
The most telling sign of a swollen tongue is an enlarged appearance. This is caused by an influx of fluids and enzymes in the affected tissue, which accumulates and causes the tongue to appear bigger than normal.
Pain is the most common symptom of a swollen tongue, especially when the swelling is caused by an allergic reaction or injury. This pain can manifest in the form of a burning or tingling sensation and can be localized to just one side of the tongue.
The tongue is an important tool used for speech, so when it swells, speaking can become difficult. The swelling may make the tongue seem bigger or thicker, reducing its range of motion and making it harder to form words.
Difficulty Eating and Drinking
A swollen tongue can make it harder to eat and drink. The extra size may interfere with tasting food or liquids, and the swelling may also block airways. Swallowing can become difficult in extreme cases and may require special attention from medical professionals.
How to Get Rid of a Swollen Tongue
Depending on the cause of a swollen tongue, it may go away on its own with time. Chronic or recurrent cases require addressing the root problem to achieve long-term relief.
There are several at-home remedies and treatment options that can help reduce your discomfort in the short-term, and possibly even help cure your swollen tongue in the long run.
Ice is a go-to for alleviating inflammation all over the body, and the tongue is no exception. Its cold temperature acts as a numbing agent, reducing swelling and relieving pain. Simply wrap a few ice cubes in a clean washcloth or place them in a plastic bag and apply to the lump or general affected area for 10-15 minutes at a time. This method is especially helpful if your swollen tongue is the result of an injury or trauma.
Saltwater helps reduce swollen tongue symptoms by drawing out excess fluid from the tongue and reducing bacterial activity. To make a saltwater solution, mix one teaspoon of salt into a cup of warm water and stir until the salt has dissolved. You can gargle the solution for 30-60 seconds, and then spit it out. When repeated multiple times a day for several days, this practice can help reduce swelling, inflammation, and discomfort.
Turmeric is a popular spice known for its anti-inflammatory properties, making it a potential natural remedy for a swollen tongue. While it may not be as effective as other treatments, it can be a natural method of decreasing inflammation. It should not be used as a treatment when you are experiencing severe swelling or anaphylaxis.
If your swollen tongue is the result of an allergic reaction, then epinephrine may be your fastest way of finding relief. Found in prescription treatments like EpiPens, this hormone is designed to quickly reduce swelling and other severe allergic reactions, such as hives or anaphylaxis. It's important to note that epinephrine should only be used in cases where allergies are the cause of a swollen tongue and as directed by a healthcare provider.
When to See a Doctor
While most cases of a swollen tongue can be treated at home, it's important to seek medical attention if the condition does not improve or worsens over time. If swelling persists for more than a few days, causes difficulty swallowing or breathing, or is accompanied by other concerning symptoms such as fever or rash seek immediate medical attention.
If you believe that allergies are to blame for your swollen tongue, confirming it will require taking an allergy test. There are two main ways of doing this - the first, skin prick testing, involves pricking the skin with small needles laced with common allergens and then observing how the body reacts in real-time.
The alternative option, at-home testing, is much less invasive. All you need to do is order a kit to your door, draw a small sample of blood with a finger prick, and send it back for analysis. Wyndly offers a comprehensive allergy assessment that tests for over 40 common environmental allergens.
The treatment of an allergy-induced swollen tongue depends on the type, severity, and duration of symptoms. Take a look at the following commonly-sought out options:
In mild cases, over-the-counter medications like Advil (ibuprofen) and Tylenol (acetaminophen) can help reduce inflammation, swelling, and pain associated with a swollen tongue. It's important to realize that these medications are only quick fixes to alleviate discomfort and usually cannot treat the underlying condition.
Prescription medications such as steroids may be prescribed to reduce inflammation, swelling, and discomfort associated with a swollen tongue. Depending on the severity of your condition, these might include oral or topical medications.
The most effective way to treat a swollen tongue caused by allergies is with allergy immunotherapy. This treatment involves introducing a small, increasing dose of the allergen over time, which will help your body eventually build up resistance toward the allergen. This results in long-term relief from your allergy symptoms.
Allergy shots are one of the most common forms of immunotherapy. This type of immunotherapy involves receiving a series of injections multiple times a week or month to build up a tolerance to your allergy triggers. Allergy shots must be administered at a doctor’s office and can be a time-consuming process.
Sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) is an increasingly-popular form of allergen desensitization therapy. Unlike allergy shots, which require frequent uncomfortable injections, SLIT involves placing a small dose of allergens under your tongue. SLIT can also be safely taken from the comfort of home.
Take Our Allergy Assessment
At Wyndly, we want to help you manage your allergies so that you can live a better life. Our allergy doctors will work with you to identify what allergies are causing your symptoms and create a personalized treatment plan to help you find long-term relief.
Take our survey to see if Wyndly is right for you and get started on your road to an allergy-free life!