Canker Sores On Your Tongue: Treatment & Causes

woman looking in mirror at tongue

Your tongue is one of the most sensitive surfaces of your entire mouth. It’s also one of the most active parts of the body. You use it to investigate other areas of your mouth, feel things stuck between teeth, taste and swallow your food, and form different shapes against your teeth and lips to speak. So, when you get aphthous ulcers on your tongue, it can be quite painful. Canker sores on the side of your tongue can be quite a nuisance.  Especially since your tongue is always on the move and touching other parts of your mouth. What should you do for relief if you have a canker sore on tongue surfaces, as opposed to your lips or cheeks?

Common Symptoms

A typical canker sore on tongue surfaces will usually appear along the sides or underneath your tongue. It’s extremely rare to get an aphthous ulcer on the rough surface of the top. Rather, the soft mucosal tissues are where you’ll see ulcers the most. That’s why you don’t just see aphthous ulcers on tongues, they’re also common in the floor of your mouth and inside your lips or cheeks.[1]

Compared to other types of ulcers, a canker sore is generally small in size, just a few millimeters in diameter. It’s typically round and crater-like. The inside of the ulcer tends to look red and raw or white after a few days of healing. They differ from herpetiform types of ulcers, which are clusters of tiny pinpoint blisters, and “cold sores” or “fever blisters” that are significantly larger in size.

Most aphthous ulcers are painful to the touch, making it difficult to brush, floss, or eat. They tend to only occur one at a time, rather than patches of several at once.

What causes a canker sore on tongues of some people? There are dozens of different reasons and causes of aphthous ulcers on tongues or elsewhere in your mouth for that matter. It can be anything from biting down on your tongue accidentally to eating acidic foods, catching it on your braces, or being deficient in B12.[2]

How To Treat Canker Sores On The Tongue

If you’re not uncomfortable, it’s possible to just wait it out. The average lifespan for an aphthous ulcer is between 7-14 days.[3] For minor irritation, time is the best medicine.

Moderate to more severe ulcers, however, require an actual treatment. Whether they’re home remedies or something provided by your dentist, canker sore relief can get you back into your normal daily activities.  

Follow these important steps:

1. Keep The Area Clean

The last thing you want is for an open wound to get infected. Since having an aphthous ulcer on your tongue makes you prone to a bacterial infection, you need to make sure you’re cleaning your mouth of bacterial plaque and food debris throughout the day. Brush, floss, and rinse regularly when possible.

2. Avoid Irritating The Ulcer

Try to protect the area by avoiding external irritants. Don’t use abrasive toothpastes, eat salty foods, or chew on anything that isn’t food. The extra irritation will constantly disrupt the thin layer of mucosal tissue that’s healing over the surface of your ulcer, making it take longer to heal. Not only that, salty or acidic foods or alcohol (including certain types of mouth rinse) can cause a painful burning sensation.

3. Use Treatment Or Medication As Needed

An at-home ulcer treatment, holistic supplements, and vitamins can help to speed up your recovery. For instance, placing honey over the ulcer can shorten how long it takes to heal. Other people benefit from drinking chamomile tea or sucking on ice chips to lessen the irritation. You can also purchase numbing gel over the counter (as long as you only use it as directed.) If you’re in severe pain, ask your dentist for a prescription mouthwash.

4. Wait

Relief is just around the corner. As long as your canker sore is healing properly, it should be gone within a week or two. If it lasts longer than 14 days and doesn’t seem to be improving, there’s likely something else going on that requires professional attention. As long as the sore is on your tongue, you can rule out things like an abscessed tooth or periodontal disease.

The key is to treat the area gently. Stick to a soft diet, avoiding hard, crunchy, acidic, or salty foods while the ulcer heals. Otherwise it’s likely that your diet will irritate the sore further, making it take longer to heal. Every time the ulcer is irritated by something, it’s going to delay the healing process.

When ulcers are caused by accidentally biting down on your tongue, it can be easy to keep re-irritating the area by biting down on the swollen surface over and over again. Take care while you’re chewing and avoid things like gum or firmer foods that require a lot of effort to eat. You might want to stick to a soft diet for a few days until the initial inflammation goes down.

Are you an orthodontic patient? If you’re planning to wear a new appliance or get your braces adjusted, make sure to have some orthodontic wax on hand when you leave your appointment. That way you can cover any areas that feel irritating before they have a chance to develop into an actual ulcer. Although it’s less common to get a canker sore on your tongue from braces, it’s not impossible!

Home Remedies

In most cases, home remedies will be the go-to solution for treating a canker sore on tongues or other areas of your mouth. There are numerous types of DIY treatments, ranging from homemade mouth rinses and topical gels to applying a chamomile compress or supplementing with B12 and zinc. Although there are a variety of natural and holistic home remedies for aphthous ulcers, always check to make sure they’re approved by a dentist. Unfortunately, a lot of DIY dental treatments that you find online can actually make things worse in the long run. I’ve listed several safe home remedies for you to consider, including using things like honey and aloe vera.

What Causes Canker Sores On Your Tongue

When it comes to a canker sore on tongue surfaces or other areas of your mouth, the cause is usually some type of an irritant. It might be mechanical (like accidentally biting on your tongue or poking it with an orthodontic wire) or chemical (like having an acidic diet). The better you understand the actual cause of the aphthous ulcer, the easier it is to avoid them in the future.

Some people claim to get ulcers more frequently when they’re sick or coming down with something. This could be due to a deficiency in certain vitamins and minerals or having a suppressed immune system.

Extremely large canker sores usually aren’t aphthous ulcers at all, but rather due to some type of underlying strain of herpes virus (don’t worry, chicken pox and shingles are also a type of herpes.) When it flares up, it can create a large “fever blister” on your lips. Although they don’t usually form on your tongue, it’s not impossible. A similar type of herpetiform ulcer are smaller, pinpoint blisters that flare up in groups. These ulcers may be the first sign that you’re getting a fever blister. Again, they differ from traditional canker sores.

Common Causes 

Some of the most common causes of canker sores can include:

When To See A Doctor

If your canker sore appears to have gotten infected and you’re noticing visible redness or swelling in the areas around it, you need to see a doctor or dentist. Additionally, let your provider know if you’ve had any symptoms of a fever or other ailments.

Since the typical healing time for aphthous ulcers on tongues are around 10-14 days, contact your doctor or dentist if symptoms persist longer than two weeks. At that point you may need some type of professional care to get the wound to heal properly. Such as a prescription medication or topical treatment of some sort. Sores that do not heal properly could also be a warning sign of oral cancer.

How To Prevent Canker Sores

If you’re someone who is prone to getting aphthous ulcers/canker sores, pay attention to the days leading up to your flare-up. It could be that you’re getting a lot of extra time out in the sun, having an orthodontic adjustment (changing the way the brackets or wires rub inside of your mouth,) eating something acidic like tomato soup or oranges, or recovering from an illness when your diet hasn’t been so great. Make a mental note of the triggers, then try to avoid those factors in the future.[4]

Good oral hygiene, a balanced diet, and taking care of yourself (mouth and body alike) can help you reduce how often you get canker sores. Although ulcers aren’t completely preventable, you can cut down on how often you get them when you know what your risk factors are.

Overcoming Canker Sores On Your Tongue

Having a canker sore on your tongue can be extremely uncomfortable. Fortunately, it’s only temporary. If you can treat the symptoms at home, you can generally expect the irritation to subside within two weeks. But if for some reason you can’t eat, talk, or it appears that the sore is getting infected, you need to schedule an appointment with your dentist. He or she might prescribe a medication like “miracle mouthwash” or something similar to help you through the final stages of the natural healing process.

If you’re prone to canker sores, let your dentist know. Together, you can work to form a game plan that reduces your chances of getting recurring ulcers or have a prescription on hand for your frequent flare-ups.