What causes a swollen tongue?

A swollen tongue is a symptom of a variety of diseases, disorders and conditions. Some causes of a swollen tongue are serious, even life threatening, such as an anaphylactic reaction. Other causes may be relatively mild, such as a small cut when you have bitten your tongue.

Bacterial, yeast and viral infections can lead to glossitis, which is a condition characterized by your tongue swelling and changing color. Other causes of a swollen tongue include a variety of irritants and exposure to very hot foods or beverages, spicy foods, tobacco, and alcohol. A swollen tongue can also be a side effect of having no teeth (edentulism) and certain medications.

Infections that cause a swollen tongue

Potential infectious causes of a swollen tongue include:

  • Herpes simplex virus infection

  • Strep infection (bacterial infection)

  • Syphilis

  • Yeast infection

Allergic causes of a swollen tongue

A swollen tongue can be due to mild and serious allergies and allergic reactions including:

  • Insect bite allergy, such as from a bee sting

  • Drug allergy (penicillin or codeine)

  • Food allergy

  • Anaphylactic allergic reaction

Irritants and trauma can cause a swollen tongue

A swollen tongue can arise from irritants and trauma including:

  • Biting the tongue

  • Burning the tongue, such as with hot liquids, hot food, or spicy food

  • Dental appliances

  • Tobacco

Other causes of a swollen tongue

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

  • Acromegaly (hormonal disorder)

  • Beckwith Wiedemann syndrome (congenital disorder)

  • Down syndrome

  • Hereditary angioedema (serious genetic disorder that causes periodic swelling of the throat and other areas)

  • Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)

  • Lymphangioma (birth defect)

  • Oral neurofibroma (benign tumor possibly due to an inherited disorder called neurofibromatosis type 1)

  • Pellagra (skin lesions and other problems caused by deficiency in vitamin B3, which is also known as niacin)

  • Pernicious anemia (decrease in red blood cells due to poor vitamin B12 absorption)

  • Pituitary gland disorder

  • Sarcoma (soft tissue cancerous tumor)

  • Tongue cancer

Questions for diagnosing the cause of a swollen tongue

To help diagnose the underlying cause of a swollen tongue, your licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your symptoms. Questions asked during your examination generally include:

  • Is the whole tongue swollen or just a portion of the tongue?

  • When did the tongue swelling start?

  • How long has the tongue swelling lasted? Does it come and go?

  • Did you eat any foods or have contact with any unusual substances before the swelling started (for example, seafood, shellfish, latex, or an insect bite)?

  • Have you had any recent infections or injuries to the mouth?

  • Do you have any pain or other symptoms?

What are the potential complications of a swollen tongue?

Complications associated with a swollen tongue can be progressive and vary depending on the underlying cause. Because a swollen tongue can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in complications and permanent damage. It is important to contact your health care provider when you experience any kind of persistent swelling or other unusual symptoms. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important to follow the treatment plan you and your health care practitioner design specifically for you to lower your risk of potential complications including:

  • Difficulty swallowing

  • Difficulty breathing (blocking the airway)

  • Discomfort

  • Surgery to remove the tongue due to a serious infection or malignant condition

  • Respiratory arrest from anaphylactic shock

What is a swollen tongue?

A swollen tongue is an abnormal condition in which the entire tongue or a portion of it is enlarged, bloated or distended. Your tongue is made up of muscles and the upper surface is lined with taste buds. Your tongue helps you to talk, swallow, taste and chew.

... Read more about swollen tongueintroduction


What other symptoms might occur with a swollen tongue?

If your tongue is swollen, you may also be experiencing other symptoms depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Other common symptoms include tongue pain, tongue lesion, difficulty chewing, and difficulty swallowing.

Allergy symptoms that may occur along with a swollen tongue

A swollen tongue may occur with other signs and symptoms of an allergic reac... Read more about swollen tonguesymptoms

Medical Reviewer: Cynthia Haines, MD Last Annual Review Date: Aug 11, 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: Allergies and the Immune System, Allergies