Glossitis

Overview

What is glossitis?

Glossitis is a condition that causes your tongue to become swollen and inflamed. People with glossitis often have tongues that look smooth or glossy.

Glossitis may appear suddenly (acute glossitis) or it may recur over time (chronic glossitis).

What are the types of glossitis?

There are a few different types of glossitis, including:

  • Atrophic glossitis. Also called Hunter glossitis, atrophic glossitis happens when you lose a lot of papillae (the tiny bumps on your tongue that contain taste buds). When this occurs, your tongue may look smooth and glossy.
  • Median rhomboid glossitis. Characterized by a red, smooth, flat or raised area, this type of glossitis affects the middle or back of your tongue. Most experts believe median rhomboid glossitis indicates a fungal infection (candida glossitis).
  • Geographic tongue. Sometimes called benign migratory glossitis, geographic tongue causes patches of missing papillae and smooth, “map-like” red lesions. Though the condition is inflammatory, it’s completely harmless.
  • Burning tongue syndrome. This condition primarily affects the tip of your tongue and the roof of your mouth. Burning tongue syndrome can affect people of all ages, but it’s most common during the menopausal period. That’s why healthcare providers also call it menopausal glossitis.

Symptoms and Causes

What are the symptoms of glossitis?

Glossitis symptoms vary depending on the underlying cause. Symptoms may appear suddenly or develop over a long period of time.

Common glossitis symptoms include:

  • Smooth, glossy tongue.
  • Sore, tender or painful tongue.
  • Swollen tongue.
  • Tongue redness.
  • Difficulty speaking, eating or swallowing.

What is the cause of glossitis?

Glossitis causes include:

  • Allergic reactions to foods, medicine or dental care products.
  • Infections (viral, bacteria or fungal).
  • Vitamin or nutritional deficiencies.
  • Mouth trauma or injury.
  • Low iron levels (which can affect the health of your muscles, including your tongue).
  • Dry mouth (xerostomia).
  • Tobacco and alcohol use.
  • Hormonal changes.

Is glossitis contagious?

Glossitis itself isn’t contagious. But you can pass any underlying infection from person to person. For example, if you have glossitis due to oral herpes, the infection can spread through saliva.

Who does glossitis affect?

Anyone can get glossitis. But you’re more likely to develop the condition if you:

Diagnosis and Tests

How is glossitis diagnosed?

A healthcare provider can diagnose glossitis during a physical examination of your tongue and mouth. They’ll look to see if you have missing papillae and ask about your symptoms. If necessary, they may request additional assessments, such as blood tests, to rule out other conditions.

Management and Treatment

How do I get rid of glossitis?

Glossitis treatment depends on the underlying cause of the condition. Once treated effectively, glossitis typically goes away.

Common glossitis treatments include:

Medication

Your healthcare provider may prescribe oral medication — such as antibiotics, antivirals or antifungals — to treat glossitis. In some cases, they may also give you a corticosteroid ointment to help reduce soreness and redness.

Supplements and dietary changes

If you have a vitamin or nutritional deficiency that’s causing glossitis, your healthcare provider will likely prescribe supplements. They may also recommend ways to add essential nutrients into your natural diet.

Eliminating triggers

If you have glossitis flare-ups after eating spicy foods, your healthcare provider may recommend avoiding these foods for a while. If you’re prone to glossitis, it’s also a good idea to quit smoking and reduce your alcohol intake.

Good oral hygiene

Practicing good oral hygiene helps eliminate harmful microorganisms that can lead to infection. Brush your teeth two to three times a day using a soft-bristled toothbrush and nonabrasive fluoride toothpaste. Floss between your teeth once a day. Don’t forget to brush your tongue.

How soon after treatment will I feel better?

Once treated, glossitis should go away within a few days. If your symptoms last longer than 10 days, contact your healthcare provider for further instructions.

Prevention

How can I reduce my risk for glossitis?

You can reduce your risk for glossitis by avoiding the triggers that cause it. Possible triggers include smoking, drinking alcohol and eating hot and spicy foods.

You can also reduce your risk for glossitis and other oral health issues by practicing good oral hygiene at home and visiting your dentist regularly for exams and cleanings.

Outlook / Prognosis

What can I expect if I have glossitis?

Most of the time, acute glossitis goes away once your healthcare provider treats it. Sometimes, it can even go away on its own.

If you have chronic or recurring glossitis, talk to your healthcare provider about ways to manage your symptoms during flare-ups.

Living With

When should I see my healthcare provider?

You should call your healthcare provider if glossitis symptoms last longer than 10 days or if your symptoms don’t respond to treatment.

If your tongue becomes severely swollen and you have difficulty speaking or breathing, call 911 or head to your nearest emergency room.

What questions should I ask my healthcare provider?

If your healthcare provider diagnoses you with glossitis, here are some questions you may want to ask:

  • What caused my glossitis?
  • Do I have an infection? If so, what kind?
  • Do I need medication?
  • How long will I take the medication?
  • Do I need to avoid certain triggers?
  • Will I need to undergo more testing?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Glossitis refers to inflammation of your tongue. It can occur for many reasons, including allergic reactions, mouth trauma and low iron levels. No matter what the cause, effective glossitis treatment can eliminate pain and swelling and improve your quality of life. To reduce your risk of glossitis, visit your dentist regularly and practice good oral hygiene.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/09/2022.

References

  • Erriu M, Pili FM, Cadoni S, et al. Diagnosis of Lingual Atrophic Conditions: Associations with Local and Systemic Factors. A Descriptive Review. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5123136/https:/www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5123136/) Open Dent J. 2016 Nov 16;10:619-635. Accessed 8/9/2022.
  • González-Álvarez L, García-Pola MJ. Risk factors associated with tongue lesions: a propensity score-matched case-control study. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8719789/) Med Oral Patol Oral Cir Bucal. 2022 Jan 1;27(1):e25-e34. Accessed 8/9/2022.
  • National Library of Medicine. Glossitis. (https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001053.htm) Accessed 8/9/2022.
  • Sharabi AF, Winters R. Glossitis. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560627/) [Updated 2022 May 8]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Accessed 8/9/2022.

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