If you have ever burned your tongue you know how aggravating it can be. It’s the only thing you can think about until it has healed. It hurts, it prevents you from eating and drinking normally, and it may last longer than you think it should. It’s possible to burn your tongue on any food or drink if you underestimate its temperature. But what occurs physically when you burn your tongue and why does it hurt so much? Here are the facts.
The tongue is actually quite sensitive
For all we put it through; eating foods that are rough, hard, or scratchy, and drinking liquids that range from icy cold to steaming hot, the tongue is actually a very sensitive organ – it has to be in order to taste hundreds of different flavors and feel myriad textures. The surface of the tongue is made up of tiny round bumps called papillae that contain the taste buds. Inside the bumps are microvilli that look like tiny hairs – hundreds of thousands of them1 – that sense temperatures, tastes and textures on the tongue. The microvilli send messages to the brain where they are decoded to tell us what we are tasting or feeling in our mouth. It is these tissues, the papillae, that can be burned and injured by extreme heat or cold.
When the tongue is burned the taste buds become swollen and traumatized. This can disrupt the ability of the microvilli to accurately detect what it is tasting or sensing. That is why when the tongue is burned, food and drink may taste different until it has healed. The taste buds for sour things are located on either side of the tongue. The taste buds for salty/sweet things are located on the front of the tongue and bitter taste buds are on the back of the tongue. These tastes will be affected temporarily depending on exactly where you burn your tongue.
Three different types of burns
For the majority of people, burns to the tongue are superficial and heal quickly, but there are three types of burns that can be sustained:
- First-degree burn: Involves the top layer of the tongue and makes it red and swollen.
- Second-degree burn: Involves the top layer and the under layer of the tissue. The tongue is red and swollen and blisters may form.
- Third-degree burn: Involves deep tissues of the tongue. It may be white or black with numbness and/or severe pain.
If you suffer a first degree burn on the tongue some simple first aid steps will help:
- Rinse your tongue or gargle with cool water
- Hold a cool cloth to the tongue
- Use popsicles or ice chips to reduce pain
- Avoid liquids and food that are warm or hot as they might aggravate the burn
- Take over-the-counter medications to address the pain, such as acetaminophen and/or ibuprofen (it’s always a good idea to consult with your ENT doctor before taking any medication)
Second and third degree burns on the tongue are more serious and should be checked immediately by an ear, nose, throat doctor to ensure that infection does not set in.
The tongue can heal quickly
There is no way to say precisely how long it will take a tongue burn to heal, but in general it should take two weeks or less. The tongue, lips, and tissues in the oral cavity heal quickly for several different reasons.
- They are mucous tissues that have a simpler composition than skin tissue. As a result, the cells regenerate faster, resulting in a shorter healing time.
- Mucous tissue also contains many different blood vessels and increased blood flow means increased oxygen to the area, which hastens healing.
- Saliva may lead to rapid healing. One study2 showed that a protein contained in saliva may increase healing. In fact, a wound created in a culture of that protein healed in just over 16 hours whereas a similar wound in a non-treated culture never healed completely.
Burning the tongue hurts. The good news is that for most burns of the tongue, simple first aid steps can reduce the discomfort and the burn will heal in a short period of time. The important thing to remember is if you do burn your tongue and it is not getting progressively better, contact an ear, nose, throat specialist right away. Protecting your tongue is essential for speech and taste, and you want to make sure that a hidden illness or infection is not affecting its function.