Tongue ulcers, also called canker sores or aphthous ulcers, are painful mouth lesions that usually heal on their own in 1 or 2 weeks. Canker sores affect women more often than men, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR). Medication and home remedies for tongue ulcers can be useful in reducing pain and promoting healing.
Tongue ulcers appear as raised round or oval bumps with a white or yellow center surrounded by a red border. Despite their small size, tongue ulcers can be very painful. Any movement of the mouth, such as talking or eating, can worsen the pain, as can eating or drinking acidic or spicy food or beverages.
Tongue ulcers have numerous causes. Vigorous use of a tooth brush can damage the tongue and cause an ulcer. Brushing the tongue gently and replacing your toothbrush when the bristles become hard or lose their shape can be an easy remedy if you develop canker sores after brushing your teeth. Other causes of tongue ulcers include immune system suppression, viruses, mouth injuries, allergies, dietary deficiencies, changing hormone levels during menstruation, stress and certain diseases, such as inflammatory bowel diseases, celiac disease, Behcet's disease, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).
Over-the-counter ointments, such as Anbesol and Orajel, contain a mild anesthetic that can be helpful in temporarily numbing a tongue ulcer. Ice can also be used to numb ulcer pain. A mixture of 1 tsp. of water and 1 tsp. of hydrogen peroxide applied directly to the tongue ulcer with a cotton swab can help the ulcer heal more quickly. Milk of Magnesia can also be applied with a swab after using the water and hydrogen peroxide mixture or can be applied on its own to soothe the canker sore. A combination of 2 tsp. of Milk of Magnesia and 2 tsp. of Benadryl used a mouthwash can help heal a tongue ulcer. After rinsing, the mixture should be spit out and not swallowed.
Medication may be needed if a tongue ulcer does not heal, covers a large area of the tongue or if there are multiple ulcers. Prescription anti-inflammatory, antibiotics or collagenase inhibitors may be prescribed to allow stubborn tongue ulcers to heal. Ulcer pain can be quickly relieved with an application of debacterol. Debacterol is used by your doctor or dentist to seal the damaged tissue, reducing healing time. Nutritional supplements may also be prescribed if you have low levels of zinc, vitamins B-12 or B-6 or folic acid. Steroids may be used as a last resort if other treatment methods are unsuccessful.
Avoid using toothpaste that contains sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) if you get frequent tongue ulcers. SLS can irritate the tongue and lining of the mouth, resulting in more frequent canker sores. Changing the brand of toothpaste you use can be a simple remedy that results in fewer painful ulcers.