The feeling of a burnt tongue in the mouth is familiar to anyone who has accidently consumed a hot drink or morsel of food. Even if the temperature of the offending substance is not high enough to cause serious injury, a burnt taste is left in the mouth for some time. In such cases, we know why we have a burnt tongue feeling. However, there are instances when a burnt tongue feeling might occur even when no hot food or liquid has been consumed. In such cases, the abnormal sensation is a symptom indicating the presence of some disease.
Signs and Symptoms
A burnt tongue feeling may also be associated with other signs and symptoms. Some of these associated signs and symptoms are:
- Pain in the tongue
- Abnormal sensations (such as tingling and numbness) in the tongue and mouth
- Excessive dryness in the mouth
- Feeling abnormally thirsty
- Changes in taste sensation (reduced taste sensation, loss of taste sensation, or abnormal taste sensations)
- Presence of abnormal lesions, projections, markings or color on the tongue.
Read more on tongue anatomy.
Causes of Burnt Tongue Feeling
The lining of the oral cavity (including the tissue lining of the tongue and the gums) is delicate, and does not have the same protective toughness as the human skin. This makes it very prone to getting injured. The human tongue is one of the most sensitive sense organs. It contains thousands of receptors that help in the detection of various textures, tastes, and temperatures of foods that it comes in contact with.
Due to this close physical contact, the tongue can easily get injured by both physical and chemical trauma. Hot foods and drinks can result in burn injuries on the tongue. Tongue piercings may also leave a burnt feeling on the tongue, even though they don’t burn the tongue. Chemical burns may also occur due to accidental or intentional consumption of corrosive substances.
Foods and beverages
Some of the foods we consume can strongly irritate the nerve endings of the receptors present on the tongue. This can leave a burnt feeling in the mouth that lingers for a while. The most common food components that result in burnt tongue feeling include spices and food additives. Examples include black pepper, red chilli, cloves, lime powder, and cayenne pepper. These spices, when used in concentrated amounts, can leave a burnt sensation on the tongue that resolves on its own after some time.
Certain lifestyle habits can also leave a burnt sensation on the tongue. Examples of such lifestyle factors include vigorous brushing of the tongue, smoking, chewing tobacco, drinking alcohol (especially home brews and moonshine), using chewable supplements and taking illicit drugs. Tiny micro-tears can form on the surface of the tongue due to the use of the substances mentioned above.
Dryness of the mouth
Excessive dryness in the mouth is technically known as xerostomia. A dry mouth can occur due to a number of different causes. Chronic dry mouth can result from long-term use of certain prescription medicines. Saliva plays an important role in keeping the oral cavity moist and in mediating taste sensations by dissolving the components of the food. Therefore, problems with the salivary glands could lead to chronic dryness in the mouth. The lack of saliva in the mouth may also leave the tongue feeling “funny”. Breathing through the mouth could also contribute to a dry mouth.
Deficiency of certain nutrients in the diet may also contribute to a burnt tongue feeling. A burnt tongue sensation is mostly seen in deficiencies of vitamin B-complex (cobalamine, folate, pyridoxine, riboflavin and thamin). Deficiency of iron may also cause a burnt tongue feeling. The severity of the burnt tongue sensation depends on the extent of the deficiency. The burnt tongue feeling in the case of nutrient deficiencies is caused by nerve dysfunction or irritation. The above mentioned B-complex vitamins are essential for proper nerve function.
Burning mouth syndrome
The burning mouth syndrome is a rare condition. However, it is one of the major causes of long-term burnt tongue feeling. In burning mouth syndrome, pain can occur anywhere in the mouth, including the lips and the inner cheek. Burning mouth syndrome can be classified into two broad categories:
- primary burning mouth syndrome, and
- secondary burning mouth syndrome.
A primary burning mouth syndrome occurs on its own, without any other associated conditions. However, the exact cause is not known. A secondary burning mouth syndrome occurs as a result of other medical problems, such as dental issues, side effects of certain medications, dry mouth, and a variety of diseases.
Food allergies can result in inflammation of various parts of the mouth, including the tongue. Food allergies occur when the immune system in certain individuals attacks food components that are normally harmless. Food allergies can either lead to localized reactions or to systemic malfunctions. A particularly serious variant of food allergy is anaphylactic reaction, in which a person may have swelling in the throat and problems in breathing. This is a potentially lethal condition that requires emergency medical intervention.
A burnt tongue feeling can also be caused by endocrine problems. Examples of endocrine gland dysfunctions that can lead to burnt tongue feeling include diabetes and hypothyroidism. In diabetes mellitus, abnormal production or action of insulin in the body prevents proper regulation of glucose levels in the blood. In hypothyroidism, the thyroid gland is underactive, resulting in insufficient production of thyroid hormones.
Infections in the mouth can also affect the tongue, resulting in painful or unusual taste sensations. Examples of infections associated with burnt tongue feeling include herpetic stomatitis and oral candidiasis. Herpetic stomatitis is caused by the herpes simplex virus (commonly abbreviated as HSV). Oral candidiasis is caused by a yeast infection of the mouth that results in the formation of yellowish or whitish plaques on the tongue and the insides of the cheeks.
Read more on mouth herpes.
The various sensations of the tongue are produced by the action of sensory nerves that innervate the tongue. Neuropathy causes damage to these nerves and results in abnormal tongue sensations. These abnormal sensations on the tongue occur even when there is no problem with the stimulation of receptors on the tongue.
In some cases, individuals suffering from depression or anxiety may have a burnt tongue feeling in the mouth. These sensations occur even when there is no physical problem with the tongue. These sensations could also be caused by the use of certain psychiatric medications.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (commonly abbreviated as GERD) is characterized by a regurgitation of acidic contents of the stomach into the esophagus and the mouth. The acid from the stomach is highly corrosive, and can lead to chemical burns in the mouth and the tongue. The burnt tongue feeling may persist even after neutralizing the acid.