When you’re too distracted to notice steam still rising from your plate (or too hungry to care), a burnt tongue is most likely in your future. But what do you do when that soup, latte or extra-hot fudge goes down way hotter than expected?
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“Minor tongue burns usually don’t require treatment,” says family medicine doctor Matthew Goldman, MD. But that doesn’t mean they don’t hurt! Dr. Goldman shares seven easy ways to soothe a burnt tongue.
First-, second- and third-degree tongue burns
The thing that makes your first bite oh-so-delicious is also what makes your mouth sensitive to extreme temperatures. The delicate tissues inside allow you to taste a variety of flavors — but they’re easy to injure, too.
You’re probably already familiar with the concept of first-, second- and third-degree burns. It’s the way healthcare providers describe the severity of tissue damage, with third-degree burns being the most serious. We use the same categories to classify tongue burns.
- First-degree tongue burns are the most common and only impact the top layer of tissue. Your tongue may look hot pink or red. You may experience swelling, mild pain or both.
- Second-degree tongue burns go beyond the top layer of tissue and hurt more than first-degree burns. In addition to turning hot pink or red and swelling up, you may notice blisters forming.
- Third-degree tongue burns are the most severe, affecting the deepest layers of tissue. The affected areas of your tongue will either blacken or turn white. Third-degree tongue burns can cause either numbness or excruciating pain.
Your taste buds are located in-between the bumps (papillae) that cover your tongue. When burnt, those papillae sometimes disappear, making your tongue look unusually smooth. Your sense of taste may also temporarily diminish (or disappear altogether) following a bad burn.
The severity of the injury determines whether you need medical attention. If you believe you’ve sustained a second- or third-degree burn, you need to contact your healthcare provider. Burns of that nature are too serious to treat on your own and may cause complications.
Not sure how serious your tongue burn is? When in doubt, ask your healthcare provider. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
Luckily, the majority of tongue burns are first-degree — meaning you can treat them yourself at home.
How to soothe a burned tongue
Here are seven tips that can help you minimize the pain and speed healing from a first-degree tongue burn.
- Drink cold beverages and eat cold foods. Have you been looking for an excuse to enjoy a bowl of ice cream, “fro-yo,” gelato or sorbet? Well, now you’ve got one! For the first few days following a tongue burn, stick with cold or chilled foods that are gentle and non-irritating.
- Suck on ice chips or popsicles. Just be sure that it’s not too cold. We don’t want your tender tongue getting stuck to anything!
- Coat your tongue with milk, sugar or honey. Spicy food aficionados will attest: Milk is great for helping you beat the heat. But it’s not the only kitchen staple that can help! Honey has anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties. Sugar can also ease pain.
- Take an over-the-counter (OTC) pain medicine. If you’re experiencing a lot of pain or swelling, consider taking acetaminophen (Tylenol®), ibuprofen (Advil®) or other over-the-counter NSAIDs.
- Rinse your mouth with salt water. Salt rinses are doubly effective: They can ease tongue pain and lower infection risk. “But avoid alcohol-based mouth rinses, which can irritate wounds and increase pain,” advises Dr. Goldman.
- Apply vitamin E. If you want to supercharge the healing process, vitamin E is the way to go. All you have to do is squeeze a 1,000 IU liquid capsule directly onto your tongue.
- Practice good oral hygiene. Keeping your teeth brushed and flossed is always important, but it’s even more important when you have a wound in your mouth. “Keeping your mouth clean helps prevent infection, especially if you have an open wound or blister,” Dr. Goldman says.
Also keep in mind that — while recovering from a tongue burn — you should avoid irritating the damaged tissue. That means steering clear of hot foods and beverages, putting your tongue scraper away and skipping any spicy or acidic foods.
How long will it take to heal?
How long it take your tongue to heal from a burn depends on the severity of the damage and whether or not you experience any complications.
But there’s good news: Our tongues are super resilient and usually heal quickly! Severe burns can take longer to heal, but in most cases, you should be shipshape again within one or two weeks. Taste buds regenerate approximately every two weeks, so you should be enjoying food again pretty quickly too.
What if your tongue doesn’t seem to be healing? Then it’s time to call a healthcare provider. It’s also important to act fast if you’re notice any of these signs of an infection:
- A fever.
- Any kind of discharge coming from your tongue.
- Worsening symptoms: Think increased redness, swelling, pain or numbness.
A lingual lesson
There’s no quick fix for a tongue burn. Tragic as it is, that first sizzling bite of pizza will probably ruin the rest of the slice for you. It could ruin the leftovers, too. Honestly, a bad tongue burn may ruin your meals for a while.
But rest assured, most tongue injuries will heal on their own. Just be sure to maintain good oral hygiene; avoid any spicy, acidic or irritating foods and drinks; and soothe your tongue with cold food and drink. Take over-the-counter pain medicine if you need it, and don’t hesitate to call a healthcare provider if your symptoms aren’t improving or they’re getting worse.
And hey, next time, remember to blow on it first!