Glossitis is a harmless condition that results from tongue inflammation. Acute or chronic irritation causes the tongue to become smooth, turn dark red and swell. Some people inherit the condition from their parents, but most instances of glossitis are caused by various environmental factors. A dentist can help patients find relief from symptoms by identifying and treating the underlying causes. Maintaining a nutritious diet and good oral hygiene practices can help prevent tongue problems from returning.
A healthy tongue is covered in small bumps and hair-like projections called papillae that contain taste buds and aid in swallowing food. Tongue inflammation and swelling cause papillae to disappear, and the tongue assumes a smooth, even glossy, appearance. Glossitis can be caused by bacterial and viral infections, allergic reactions to oral hygiene products and deficiencies of vitamin B or iron. The tongue may also be irritated by a severe burn, tobacco use, alcohol and spicy foods.
As the tongue swells, it usually turns a dark shade of red and becomes tender. Some instances of glossitis, especially those caused by infections, result in a constant, painful burning sensation across the tongue. A condition called geographic tongue occurs when only part of the tongue is affected by inflammation, resulting in a distinct, map-like appearance of light and dark-colored patches. Swelling can be severe enough to impair speaking and swallowing, and some people face breathing problems when their enlarged tongue blocks their airways.
Tongue irritation that causes discoloration and swelling should be inspected by a dentist to ensure an accurate diagnosis. The underlying cause of symptoms must be determined to ensure that patients receive effective treatment. A dentist can carefully inspect the tongue and attempt to identify the cause of glossitis. If the reasons for tongue inflammation are unclear, a patient may be referred to a physician to have blood and tissue tests performed.
Patients are often given anti-inflammatory medications to relieve immediate symptoms of pain and swelling. Glossitis that is caused by hot foods, alcohol or tobacco use can usually be relieved by simply avoiding the irritants. Burns and direct injuries tend to heal on their own in a few days without direct medical care, and most infections can be treated with oral antibiotics. In the case of a vitamin deficiency, a doctor may suggest that a patient take supplements and make dietary changes. Regardless of the cause of glossitis, practicing good oral hygiene and scheduling regular dental checkups are important to prevent future mouth and tongue problems.