Tongue Symptoms and Iron Deficiency

Iron deficiency has some strange symptoms, from craving nonfood substances like dirt to a mysteriously sore tongue. The most common form of iron deficiency is iron deficiency anemia, in which the blood lacks enough healthy red blood cells. A blood test will confirm a deficiency, and your doctor can formulate a treatment plan to bring your levels back up to normal. Once your iron levels have increased, your iron deficiency tongue symptoms should disappear.

Tongue Symptoms and Iron Deficiency (Image: PhotoAlto/Antoine Arraou/Brand X Pictures/GettyImages)

Oral Anemia Symptoms

In a 2014 study in the Journal of the Formosan Medical Association, participants with iron deficiency anemia experienced a host of oral symptoms compared to a control group of age- and sex-matched healthy adults. The top five oral symptoms were a burning sensation in the lining of the mouth, inflamed purplish veins on the underside of the tongue, dry mouth, inflamed swollen tissues and sores and an abnormally smooth tongue.

You may also see white patches inside the mouth, and your tongue may be paler than usual. These symptoms are the result of inflammation caused by your body's inability to transport fresh, healthy blood to your cells.

Other Low Iron Symptoms

If an iron deficiency is causing your tongue symptoms, it's highly likely you'll experience concurring symptoms. According to Mayo Clinic, common iron deficiency symptoms include:

  • Severe fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Pale skin
  • Chest pain
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headache
  • Lightheadedness and dizziness
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Brittle nails
  • Strange cravings for non-nutritive items such as dirt, ice and starch
  • Decreased appetite

How to Treat Iron Deficiency

Once you remedy the deficiency, your tongue symptoms should go away. Your doctor may recommend a daily iron supplement, and you can also focus on including more iron-rich foods in your diet. Women need 18 mg of iron daily, and men need 8 mg. Some of the foods highest in iron include:

  • Fortified breakfast cereals: Up to 18 mg per serving
  • White beans: 8 mg per cup
  • Beef liver: 5 mg per 3 ounces
  • Tofu: 6 mg per cup
  • Spinach: 6 mg per cup, boiled
  • Lentils: 6 mg per cup

To increase the amount of iron your body absorbs from foods, pair iron-rich foods with a source of vitamin C, abundant in most fruits and vegetables. Beta-carotene, a form of vitamin A in plants, can increase iron absorption and inhibit compounds in foods that can prevent absorption such as tannic acid and phytates. Sources of beta-carotene include carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squash, spinach, kale, apricots and cantaloupe.

Relief for a Sore Tongue

There isn't much you can do for your sore tongue until you treat your iron deficiency. However, there are some things you can do at home that may temporarily relieve swelling and pain. Ibuprofen or other over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicines can help reduce soreness and swelling, but make sure that the product you choose doesn't interact with any other medications you're using.

Gargling with salt water is often recommended to soothe a sore throat, and it may have the same benefit for a sore tongue. Similarly, a mouth rinse with hydrogen peroxide can help relieve minor mouth irritation. To prevent making matters worse, avoid crunchy or sharp foods like chips, acidic foods like lemons, spicy foods and foods that are too hot in temperature. Brush your teeth, gums and tongue gently as well.

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