Glossitis is typically characterized by an inflammation of the tongue. It can also cause changes in the tongue’s texture and color.

Along with swelling, glossitis can change the color and surface texture of the tongue because the condition causes the small bumps on the surface to shrink, creating a shiny, red surface.

Severe cases of glossitis can be painful and affect the way a person talks or eats.

There are different types of glossitis, including:

  • Acute glossitis. This often develops suddenly and can have severe symptoms.
  • Chronic glossitis. Chronic inflammation of the tongue is often the result of an underlying condition.
  • Atrophic glossitis also called Hunter’s glossitis. Here, the many of the tongue’s small bumps (papillae) shrink, which changes the surface of the tongue, making it appear glossy.
  • Median rhomboid glossitis. A Candida yeast infection often causes this type of glossitis.

Symptoms

glossitis
Symptoms of glossitis include pain and swelling in the tongue and difficulty swallowing.

The symptoms of glossitis vary from person to person. They may also differ according to the underlying cause of the condition.

Common symptoms of glossitis include:

  • a swollen tongue
  • pain in the tongue
  • burning or itching in the tongue
  • change in the texture of the surface of the tongue due to the change in the size and shape of papillae
  • different color of the tongue’s surface
  • loss of ability to speak or eat properly
  • difficulty swallowing

Causes

There is a variety of possible causes of glossitis, including:

Allergic reaction

When glossitis occurs due to an allergic reaction, a person is most likely to develop acute glossitis and have sudden tongue swelling and pain. An allergy to a particular food, drug, or specific irritant can cause this type of reaction.

Injury to the mouth

Injuries to the mouth, such as small cuts from braces or burns from hot food, might cause the tongue to inflame and swell.

When dental braces cause glossitis, a person is more at risk for chronic glossitis due to the risk of repeated injury to the mouth and tongue.

Diseases

Certain diseases can cause glossitis, especially those where nutritional deficiencies occur, such as celiac disease, protein-calorie malnutrition, and pernicious anemia.

Diseases that attack the immune system, such as Sjögren’s Syndrome, can cause changes in the mouth that lead to glossitis.

Infections

Bacterial, viral, and fungal infections can all cause glossitis. However, oral herpes, which is a viral infection, and fungal yeast infections are among the most likely infections to cause glossitis.

Nutritional deficiencies

Iron deficiencies occur when a person does not have enough iron in their blood. This can trigger glossitis since low levels of iron lead to low levels of myoglobin, a substance in the blood that plays a significant role in the health of all the muscles in the body, including the tongue.

A vitamin B12 deficiency may also lead to glossitis.

Diagnosis

If a person has symptoms of glossitis, they can visit a dentist or a doctor. At the exam, the medical professional will take a medical history and assess any symptoms the person reports.

The doctor or dentist will then examine the person’s mouth and tongue thoroughly. They will note any abnormalities in the tongue’s surface and look for blisters or bumps on the tongue or gums.

They may also take a swab of saliva for testing and order blood work to check for underlying nutritional deficiencies or diseases.

Treatment

Image of glossitis <br>Image credit: Klaus D. Peter, 2012</br>
If infection or disease has caused glossitis, a doctor may prescribe medication.
Image credit: Klaus D. Peter, 2012

Treatment for glossitis depends on its cause. Generally, glossitis responds well to treatment once a doctor has determined the underlying cause.

Doctors may prescribe medications for people with glossitis that is caused by disease or infection. Antibiotic, antifungal, or antiviral drugs may help clear up a bacterial, fungal, or viral infection, respectively.

A doctor may prescribe dietary supplements for someone with glossitis due to a nutritional deficiency. The doctor may also recommend ways to add more of the missing nutrient into a person’s diet.

If a nutrient deficiency is due to an underlying disease, such as celiac disease, a doctor may recommend treatment that includes dietary changes to manage the underlying condition.

Prevention

It may not always be possible to prevent glossitis. However, a person can lower their risk of developing the condition by:

  • maintaining a healthful diet
  • practicing good oral hygiene with regular brushing, flossing, and mouthwashes
  • avoiding irritants, such as spicy foods, cigarettes, and acidic foods

Outlook

A person with glossitis can generally expect to make a full recovery, although this will take time and require proper treatment. During treatment, avoid eating foods that may irritate the tongue, and maintain good oral hygiene through brushing and flossing.

If the symptoms do not go away after some time, seek medical attention. In cases where the tongue is severely swollen and starts to block the airways, a person should seek emergency medical attention or call emergency services as severe swelling may indicate a serious underlying condition.

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