What causes tongue ulcers?

Tongue ulcers are generally the result of injury to the tongue, such as from biting, or a viral infection. Common tongue ulcers include canker sores.

Infectious causes of tongue ulcers

Tongue ulcers may be caused by various types of infections including:

  • Canker sores
  • Gingivostomatitis (a viral or bacterial mouth infection)
  • Herpes simplex infection
  • Oral lichen planus (an immune system disease that can increase the risk of oral cancer)
  • Oral thrush (a superficial infection on the surface of the tongue caused by the fungus Candida)

Disease causes of tongue ulcers

Tongue ulcers can also be associated with certain diseases including:

  • Autoimmune diseases such as lupus
  • Behcet’s syndrome (a disease characterized by widespread inflammation of blood vessels)
  • Crohn’s disease (inflammatory bowel disease that can affect any part of the intestine), ulcerative colitis, and other inflammatory bowel diseases

Other causes of tongue ulcers

Tongue ulcers can also be caused by a variety of other conditions including:

  • Leukoplakia (chronic irritation of the tongue)
  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Tongue biting
  • Tongue injury

Serious or life-threatening causes of tongue ulcers

In some cases, tongue ulcers may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Oral cancer
  • Serious infections

Questions for diagnosing the cause of tongue ulcers

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your tongue ulcers including:

  • How long have you been experiencing tongue ulcers?
  • Are your tongue ulcers painful?
  • Do you chew on the inside of your mouth or frequently eat foods that might irritate your tongue?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • What is your oral hygiene routine?
  • What medications are you taking?

What are the potential complications of tongue ulcers?

In most cases, tongue ulcers are not life threatening and can be treated with good oral hygiene or topical over-the-counter medications. Irritation of ulcers can be avoided by preventing tongue biting and avoiding spicy or acidic foods. In cases in which the tongue ulcers are related to an infection, medical treatment of the infection may cause tongue ulcers to resolve. Because tongue ulcers can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Adverse effects of treatment
  • Dental infections
  • Pain
  • Secondary infection of the tongue or mouth
  • Spread of cancer
  • Spread of infection to other people


  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. Canker sores. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001993/.
  3. Reamy BV, Derby R, Bunt CW. Common tongue conditions in primary care. Am Fam Physician 2010; 81:627.
  4. Domino FJ (Ed.) Five Minute Clinical Consult. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2013.

What are tongue ulcers?

Tongue ulcers are open sores or cuts on the tongue. Tongue ulcers can be painful and raw and can be irritated by eating and drinking. One of the most common types of tongue ulcers is the canker sore, which may arise for an unknown reason or be linked to a number of different irritants.

Tongue ulcers arise from a variety of conditions, including viral infection, injury to the tongu... Read more about tongue ulcersintroduction


What other symptoms might occur with tongue ulcers?

Tongue ulcers may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition.

Oral symptoms that may occur along with tongue ulcers

Tongue ulcers may accompany other symptoms affecting the mouth including:

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Annual Review Date: Sep 20, 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