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Mouth ulcers, or canker sores, can sometimes appear on the tongue. Although a tongue ulcer will clear up on its own with time, some home remedies may help ease the symptoms.
People can also use over-the-counter (OTC) medications to alleviate pain.
In this article, we discuss tongue ulcers in more detail, including why they occur, their symptoms, and how to treat them.
We also look at how to identify them and when to see a doctor.
Tongue ulcers are whiteish sores on the tongue.
Also called canker sores, a 2019 article notes that these ulcers most often develop on the inside of the lips and cheeks. However, they can sometimes appear in other areas of the mouth, such as the gums, tongue, and roof of the mouth.
They can appear individually, or a person may experience between two and four at a time.
Minor canker sores are usually a few millimeters wide. However, if they measure 1–3 centimeters, healthcare professionals refer to them as major canker sores.
They are not contagious and cannot spread from person to person through contact or shared items.
The main symptom a person will notice is pain.
The pain may be worse if the ulcer comes into contact with an object, such as a toothbrush. Some foods can also aggravate the tongue ulcer, especially those that are spicy or acidic.
The ulcers themselves tend to be white and roundish. They are typically a few millimeters wide and appear slightly sunken.
Some ulcers may have an area of redness around their outer ring, especially if something irritates them.
There is no single cause of tongue ulcers. Instead, there are several potential triggers.
A person can develop tongue ulcers due to damage in the mouth that results from:
- biting the tongue
- injuries from dental work
- braces or retainers
- poorly fitting dentures
- burns from eating hot foods
- eating acidic or spicy foods
- brushing the teeth with a hard-bristled brush
The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) note that ulcers can also occur in the mouth due to:
- hormonal changes
- medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- food allergies or intolerances
- high stress levels
People may also develop tongue ulcers when they first stop smoking.
There may also be a genetic factor in developing tongue ulcers. Research in Advances in Dermatology and Allergology states that people with certain genes may be more likely to experience recurring canker sores.
People with certain conditions who experience tongue ulcers should talk to their doctor. These conditions include:
- inflammatory bowel disease
- celiac disease
- conditions that weaken the immune system
- Behcet’s disease
Some forms of ulcers on the tongue and in the mouth may be signs of oral cancer. Anyone with concerns about their symptoms should speak with a doctor to get a diagnosis.
Tongue ulcers tend to heal on their own. Researchers note that most lesions heal in 4–14 days without treatment.
Although tongue ulcers tend to clear up on their own, various home remedies may help ease the symptoms during the healing process.
People can soothe tongue ulcers at home by rinsing the mouth with:
- clean water, especially after eating
- warm salt water
- baking soda dissolved in water
They can also try applying very cold water to the ulcer or sucking on ice chips.
Medical treatment for tongue ulcers generally focuses on easing the symptoms while identifying and treating any underlying conditions responsible for the ulcers.
OTC medications can be a helpful remedy for symptoms of a tongue ulcer. People can try using pain relievers, such as acetaminophen, or numbing gels, such as benzocaine.
However, the numbing action may make it harder to feel the tongue. People using the gel should, therefore, take care to avoid further injury to the tongue, such as by biting it.
Calcium is an important nutrient that people need to consume for strong bones and teeth.
When a person does not consume enough calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D, they can develop weaker, less-dense bones and teeth. This can lead to osteoporosis and other health complications, such as tooth decay and tooth loss.
According to the New York State Department of Health, females living with osteoporosis tend to have fewer teeth than those of a similar age not living with the condition. They also note that if the jawbone weakens or thins, it may no longer support the teeth properly, leading to tooth loss.
Calcium deficiency can cause bones throughout the body to become less dense and more fragile. When this occurs, it can make a person more susceptible to losing teeth.
According to an older study, researchers found a direct correlation between not getting enough calcium and losing teeth. The researchers found that people who did not take in enough calcium each day were much more likely to lose at least one tooth within a 2-year follow-up period.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the signs of calcium deficiency may not become apparent for several years because a person’s body will pull calcium from their bones when there is a deficiency.
Over the long term, calcium deficiency can cause:
- low bone mass, also called osteopenia
- an increased risk of osteoporosis
- higher risk of bone fractures
The NIH also state that severe cases of calcium deficiency can cause:
- numbness or tingling in the fingers
- abnormal heart rhythms
A person can take steps to strengthen their enamel and prevent calcium deficiency and its symptoms before they happen.
People can take steps to keep their teeth healthy by:
- taking care of the gums and teeth with regular brushing, flossing, and dentist visits
- replacing the toothbrush at regular intervals
- limiting alcoholic beverages
- avoiding smoking
- consuming 600–800 international units of vitamin D per day
- eating or consuming 1,000–1,200 milligrams of calcium each day through food or supplements
- maintaining a moderate weight
- eating a diet with plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, and low fat dairy
- getting regular exercise
- visiting the dentist immediately if discomfort or other symptoms occur in the mouth
- using caution to avoid falls
What to eat
The American Dental Association (ADA) recommend that people add more calcium-rich foods to their diet.
There are various dietary sources of calcium, including nondairy and vegan options. They include:
- dairy products, including milk, cheese, and yogurt
- soy milk
- tofu with added calcium
- dark green, leafy vegetables
- orange juice with added calcium
- canned fish
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommend that a person eat foods rich in vitamin C and phosphorus in addition to calcium. Vitamin C helps promote gum health, while phosphorus, which is in foods such as beans, eggs, and meats, is important for strong teeth.
According to the ADA, lost teeth can lead to nutritional issues. They say that a person who has experienced tooth loss is more likely to eat a soft diet that may not include necessary nutrients. This can lead to other complications, such as obesity.
The ADA also recommend that a person talk to their dentist about replacing missing teeth. They say that having properly fitting dentures can make a difference in helping a person maintain a regular, healthful diet.
Calcium in food vs. supplements
In a 2015 study, researchers linked low calcium intake with an increased risk of both oral cancer and oral disease. They identified that people in the at-risk group ate more protein and drank more soft drinks than others.
Consuming enough calcium is an important part of preventing bone density loss. However, people should try to get their calcium and other nutrients from foods rather than supplements.
The researchers behind a 2013 study stated that doctors should avoid prescribing or recommending calcium supplements due to the minimal effect they have on preventing fractures. They also found that taking calcium supplements may increase the risk of heart attack, kidney stones, and acute gastrointestinal events.
Another study, this one from 2017, also advises people to get their calcium from the diet. The researchers recommend that doctors discourage people from using calcium supplements.
A range of treatments can help, and the best option will depend on the cause of the looseness.
- Scaling and root planing. This is a type of deep cleaning procedure that can treat and help to reverse gum disease.
- Medications or mouth rinses. These can help infected gums to heal and combat bacteria in the mouth.
- Surgery. The aim will be to remove inflamed gum tissue and bone that has been damaged by gum disease.
- Bone grafts. These can help to rebuild bone lost to gum disease.
- Soft tissue grafts. Also known as gum grafts, these can prevent further gum or tooth loss in people with gum disease.
- Dental appliances, such as bite splints. These can reduce damage from grinding and may help the mouth to heal after dental surgery.
- Treatment for diabetes. Appropriate treatment is important for dental health.
If a loose tooth falls out, a dentist can often restore a person’s smile with:
- A dental bridge. This type of crown fits over the teeth on either side of the missing tooth. The result is a bridge between two healthy teeth, connected by a prosthetic, or artificial, tooth in the place of the one that is missing.
- A dental implant. This involves an artificial tooth and root, which is connected to the jawbone.
While these options are effective, it is essential to treat the underlying cause of tooth loss and take any other steps needed to prevent further damage.