What causes a sore tongue?

A sore tongue is a symptom of a variety of diseases, disorders or conditions. Some causes may be relatively mild, such as a small laceration or contusion due to biting the tongue; whereas, other conditions require prompt medical attention, such as an infection or oral cancer.

One common cause of tongue pain or soreness is glossitis, a condition characterized by tongue swelling and changes in color. Bacterial, yeast and viral infections can cause glossitis. Other causes include a variety of irritants and exposure to very hot foods or beverages, spicy foods, tobacco, and alcohol. Many other inflammatory and abnormal processes can affect the tongue.

Infections that cause a sore tongue

A sore tongue can be caused by infectious diseases including:

  • Oral herpes virus infection (also known as herpetic stomatitis)

  • Strep infection (a bacterial infection)

  • Syphilis

  • Yeast (fungal) infection

Trauma or injuries that cause a sore tongue

A sore tongue can be caused by irritants and trauma including:

  • Biting the tongue

  • Blisters or ulcers

  • Burning the tongue

  • Canker sores

  • Dental appliances

  • Hot and spicy food

  • Jagged teeth, prosthetic teeth, or poorly fitting dentures

  • Laceration or contusion

  • Tobacco

Other disorders that cause a sore tongue

A sore tongue can be due to a variety of other diseases, disorders and conditions including:

  • Burning tongue syndrome (no known cause, but this disorder is more common in postmenopausal women)

  • Canker sore on the tongue

  • Diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage due to high blood sugar levels associated with diabetes)

  • Geographic tongue (mild inflammatory disorder)

  • Iron deficiency anemia

  • Oral lichen planus (inflammatory disorder)

  • Pemphigus vulgaris (autoimmune disorder)

  • Pernicious anemia (due to vitamin B12 deficiency)

  • Psychogenic pain (pain that is not due to a known medical or physical disorder)

  • Tongue cancer or oral cancer

Questions for diagnosing the cause of a sore tongue

To diagnose the underlying cause of a sore tongue, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions about your symptoms. Providing complete answers to these questions will help your provider in diagnosing the cause of a sore tongue:

  • Are you taking any medications, supplements, or herbal drugs? Do you smoke?

  • Describe any changes in the texture, appearance and taste of the tongue. Have you noticed any tongue swelling, mouth sores, or lesions?

  • Have you been in recent contact with any unusual substances or environments, such as hot or spicy foods?

  • When did the sore tongue or pain first appear?

What are the potential complications of a sore tongue?

Complications associated with a sore tongue can be progressive and vary depending on the underlying cause. Because a sore tongue can be due to a serious disease, failure to seek treatment can result in complications and permanent damage. It is important to visit your health care provider when you experience any kind of persistent pain or other unusual symptoms. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, following the treatment plan outlined by your doctor can help reduce any potential complications including:

  • Chronic pain

  • Difficulty breathing (blockage of the airway)

  • Difficulty swallowing

  • Spread of infection

  • Tongue removal due a serious infection or malignant condition


  1. Tongue problems. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003047.htm.
  2. Glossitis, Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001053.htm.
  3. Cawson, RA and Odell EW. Cawson’s Essentials of Oral Pathology and Oral Medicine. Elsevier. 2008:246-248.

What is a sore tongue?

A sore tongue is any pain or discomfort of all or a part of the tongue. Pain is a sensation triggered by the nervous system in response to tissue inflammation or damage. If you have a sore tongue, you may feel a dull, stabbing, shooting, burning, or pins-and-needles sensation.

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What other symptoms might occur with a sore tongue?

A sore tongue may occur with other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Common symptoms include tongue swelling, discoloration and unusual texture, difficulty chewing, and difficulty swallowing. Potential symptoms that may accompany a sore tongue include:

  • Bad breath

  • Burning sensation
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Medical Reviewer: Cynthia Haines, MD Last Annual Review Date: Aug 8, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Mouth, Teeth and Oral Health