Tongue ulcers occur commonly, especially among adolescents and adults younger than 40. Most are aphthous ulcers, or canker sores. These ulcers occur typically develop on the underside of the tongue or along the sides. Ulcers on the top of the tongue, where the taste buds reside, often develop due to traumatic injuries or underlying disease. Tongue ulcers, especially the aphthous type, usually heal on their own within 10 to 14 days. Over-the-counter and home remedies can be useful in reducing discomfort and potentially promoting healing of tongue ulcers.
Salt Water Mouth Rinse
Rinsing your mouth several times daily with a simple salt water solution helps keep the area clean and might provide temporary pain relief caused by tongue ulcers. Mix one-half teaspoon of salt in a cup of warm water. If the solution stings too much, dilute it with more warm water. Make sure you swish the salt water rinse so it reaches the area of the ulcer. You can rinse your mouth with salt water as often as you like -- just be sure to spit it out rather than swallowing the solution.
Dilute hydrogen peroxide acts as an antiseptic and helps relieve symptoms of tongue ulcers, as shown in a small study published in the Fall 2012 issue of the "Pakistan Journal of Medical and Health Sciences." You can make this remedy at home by mixing equal amounts of water and 3 percent hydrogen peroxide from the drug store. Dab the solution directly on the ulcer 2 or 3 times daily.
You can also buy over-the-counter carbamide peroxide mouth rinse (Gly-Oxide). Some people find this provides longer pain relief as the solution is thicker and coats mouth ulcers longer than homemade hydrogen peroxide solution. Carbamide peroxide liquid is swished and then spit out. Be aware that peroxide mouth rinses bubble or foam in the mouth, which is normal.
Homemade Magic Mouthwash
Magic mouthwash is a prescription mixture typically used to treat mouth sores caused by cancer treatment. However, a modified homemade version can provide pain relief for tongue and other mouth ulcers. This home remedy includes equal amounts of liquid antacid (Milk of Magnesia, Maalox, Mylanta), diphenhydramine syrup (Benadryl Liquid Elixir) and water. You can either swish the solution and spit it out, or apply a small amount directly to the ulcer with a cotton swab every 4 to 6 hours. Some people find dabbing a liquid antacid alone onto a mouth ulcer provides sufficient pain relief.
Local Anesthetics and Other Remedies
Drinking an ice slurry can temporarily numb your tongue slightly, providing short-term relief from aphthous ulcer pain. Over-the-counter canker sore products that contain benzocaine -- a locally acting numbing medicine, or anesthetic -- can provide longer-acting relief. Most of these products (Orajel, Anbesol, Zilactin-B and others) contain additional ingredients that temporarily coat mouth ulcers, providing protection that might boost and extend pain relief. Some canker sore products lack a local anesthetic and function primarily as a protective barrier (Canker Cover, Canker-X). Avoiding use of toothpaste that contains sodium lauryl sulfate, which might aggravate mouth sores, is another helpful strategy.
Most tongue ulcers are simple canker sores that typically heal within 2 weeks. However, see your doctor as soon as possible if your tongue ulcer fails to improve within 7 to 10 days, or the ulcer is large or expanding. Also seek medical care if you experience recurring ulcers on your tongue or elsewhere in your mouth. Your doctor might recommend prescription medication, such as a steroid or antibiotic mouth rinse. Your doctor will also evaluate you to determine whether an underlying medical problem might be causing your mouth ulcers, such as inflammatory bowel diseases, celiac disease, Behcet syndrome, Reiter syndrome or oral cancer.
Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.