itchy tongue

Any time your mouth feels itchy, it tends to raise red flags. Some of the more common instances of an itchy tongue or mouth are associated with food allergies or a fungal infection like thrush. While some could be life-threatening and serious, other flareups involving an itchy mouth may be more irritating than problematic. The key is to listen to your body and pinpoint where the warning signs are coming from so that you can take steps to minimize discomfort.

Common Itchy Tongue Symptoms

When it comes to a breakout somewhere on your body, you might see something like hives or a rash flare-up with your other symptoms. But inside of your mouth, an itchy tongue may stand out from everything else.

Look inside of your mouth for signs of redness, speckled tissues, sores, or a white coating (that you may or may not be able to wipe away with a washcloth.) Are there any parts of your mouth that are swollen? If for any reason you’re having difficulty breathing or it seems as if your airway is closing off, seek emergency medical care immediately.

Make a mental note of what you ate recently, specifically within the last hour. Depending on whether your itchy tongue or mouth is caused by a food allergy, you might see symptoms right away or it may take a little while before they’re evident.

Additionally, check your skin for signs of an allergic reaction, such as hives or a rash.[1] Take your temperature to see if you have a fever; if you do, it could be the result of some type of systemic virus or chronic infection that your body is trying to fight off.

Itchy Tongue Causes

Aside from a serious food allergy, most causes of an itchy tongue or mouth are usually attributed to specific issues like:

1) Allergies Or An Allergic Reaction

Symptoms

An itchy tongue after eating or spending time outdoors could mean you were exposed to a specific allergen that you’re sensitive to. Allergies can develop over time and aren’t always something you’re born with. The itchiness might be restricted to your mouth, or whatever part of your body was exposed to the allergen. In some cases, your entire body will break out in bumps, rashes, or hives. Itchiness is one of the top signs of an allergic response.

Treatment

Again, we can’t emphasize enough how important it is to catch a severe allergic reaction before it turns into anaphylaxis and heaven forbid, death. If you’re going into an anaphylactic shock, someone will need to administer an Epi-Pen and call 9-1-1 ASAP.[2] But if we’re assuming you’ve ruled out a serious allergic reaction or food allergy (with the help of your doctor and/or allergist) you’ll probably want to take an antihistamine to get some relief. Talk to your medical provider about possible allergy medications or shots to use as a preventative in the future.

2) Hormonal Changes

Symptoms

Any time there’s swelling associated with your mouth, there’s a chance of an itchy sensation. Women tend to be sensitive to hormonal changes and occasionally their gums exhibit what looks like gingivitis. In reality, it’s a hormone-induced pseudo(fake) gingivitis that tends to go away after menses or pregnancy. Of course, the itchiness is more likely to exhibit itself around your gums than it is places like your tongue or the roof of your mouth. You might be experiencing “referred” symptoms where it feels like your tongue is itching, but it’s actually another part of your mouth.

Treatment

Check to make sure your oral hygiene routine is up to par. Gently brush along your gums and floss each day. It can take up to two weeks for true gingivitis to reverse itself. Otherwise, you should see symptoms improve as your hormone levels stabilize. Bottom line, don’t blame it on your hormones unless you notice a direct correlation on a month-to-month basis (in other words, see your doctor about it!)

3) Bite Or Injured On The Tongue

Symptoms

Your tongue is loaded with vascular tissues. So, when you accidentally injure it with food or by biting down on the side while you’re talking, there’s a good chance it’s going to bleed or feel extremely tender. It’s not uncommon to feel some itchiness around your injured site. The good news is that since your tongue is loaded with blood vessels, it can heal quite quickly!

Treatment

Take care not to chew on that side of your mouth. Avoid hard or crunchy foods for at least a few days. Take anti-inflammatory medication (like Motrin) if needed. You can also suck on an ice chip to help numb the injured area

 4) Dry Mouth

Symptoms

Xerostomia (dry mouth) is usually a side-effect of prescription or over-the-counter medications. It’s also caused by conditions like auto-immune disorders, cancer therapy, or damage to saliva glands. When your mouth isn’t lubricated, it can contribute to “burning mouth syndrome”, which may in turn make your tongue or mouth feel itchy. It also raises your chances of getting cavities.

Treatment

Talk to your dentist about saliva substitutes and fluoride supplements to lower your chances of tooth decay.[3] Sip on water frequently throughout the day and as you’re eating, to minimize tongue soreness and make it easier to swallow. Stick to sugar-free mints or gums to help stimulate saliva production.

5) Thrush

Symptoms

Thrush is a type of candida (yeast) infection. It’s common in people who have compromised immune systems or infants. With oral thrush there is usually a white coating that wipes off, revealing a bright red, raw tissue underneath. Thrush can also cause crusty or cracked areas at the corners of the mouth.

Treatment

Probiotics and steroids may be needed if the infection is severe.[4] Oral hygiene after meals is crucial. If you have an infant, clean their mouth after each feeding to prevent milk from pooling in areas between meals.

Less Common Causes

Here are a couple of less frequent conditions that can sometimes cause tingling or itchiness in your mouth.

1) Canker Sores

Symptoms

Aphthous ulcers or canker sores tend to cause burning and tenderness inside of your mouth. However, it’s relatively rare to get them on top of your tongue. You might see them on the sides or underneath your tongue from time to time. The itchy sensation may not set in until a day or two after healing starts to set in.

Treatment

Avoid acidic foods or irritating the ulcer with your diet and oral hygiene routine. Allow the area to heal on its own; usually it takes a few days.[5]

2) Herpes Or Other Viral Infections

Symptoms

Most people describe a “tingling” sensation that starts to flare up the day or two before a cold sore forms. Since cold sores are caused by a strain of the herpes virus – just like chicken pox – you can understand why your mouth might feel a little itchy where the sore is about to form.[6] In most cases, they form close to your lips, but it’s not impossible to get one on your tongue.

Treatment

People with chronic flareups can get a cold sore prescription from their dentist. Or if you see a dental provider that offers laser therapy, try to get into their office on the same day that the tingling/burning/itchy sensation becomes evident. Early laser treatment can cut the life of the cold sore by half.

Preventing An Itchy Tongue

As with most dental health issues, prevention is key. If you’re someone who gets an itchy tongue from time to time, take care to watch your diet and practice exemplary oral hygiene. But even if you brush and floss every day, you might not be cleaning your tongue properly. If you look at it closely, the surface of your tongue is covered in hundreds, dare I say thousands, of tiny little papilla. Each of these papillae is like a tiny, fingerlike extension coming off of your tongue. Food debris and bacteria can get caught between them, raising your risk of an infection if you don’t clean them well.

So, what’s the best way to clean your tongue? Not with a toothbrush; with a tongue scraper. But just watch out…the first time you use one is going to blow your mind. Draw the scraper from the back of your tongue to the tip, using firm pressure. It may take a little practice before it feels like you won’t gag, but it will be well worth it! Then look at it…the buildup you cleaned off will blow your mind. 

Side note: avoid using mouth rinse that contains alcohol. It can dry out your mouth and make symptoms of itchiness feel even worse!

Relief At Home

Brush, floss, and clean your tongue daily. If it’s a thrush or bacterial infection, you need to stabilize the oral flora inside of your mouth to get things back on track. Eating yogurt or supplementing with a probiotic won’t hurt.

If you suspect a minor food allergy, use an elimination diet to try to narrow down which foods you’re reacting to. Then, speak with your medical doctor about what happened. Just take note that food allergies can worsen with time and shouldn’t be dismissed. 

Allergic reactions that involve overall itchiness or a flare-up in your mouth can sometimes be managed with an over-the-counter antihistamine. Although you can take the medication in a pill form, some dentists will have patients mix the antihistamine with an antacid to create a special mouthrinse that they coat their mouths in (but don’t swallow it; just rinse then spit it out.) If it’s not strong enough, ask your dentist about getting a prescription version of the same thing that contains lidocaine, AKA “miracle mouthwash.”

Overcoming An Itchy Tongue

One of the first things you should consider if you have an itchy tongue or mouth is a food allergy. Especially since anaphylaxis (oxygen deprivation) is such a serious risk. But if you know you don’t have a food allergy and are experiencing irritating symptoms of burning and itchiness, doing a bit of detective work can help you pinpoint the cause of your ailment. Then, take the appropriate steps or work with your dentist to find fast relief as well as a long-term solution that prevents symptoms from coming back.

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