There are two types of burns that typically affect the tongue -- chemical burns and heat (thermal) burns. When it comes to burns on the tongue, heat burns (like from that too-hot cocoa) are much more likely to occur than chemical burns, which are caused by caustic and dangerous chemicals coming into contact with tissue. The two types of burns should not be treated the same way, so it is important that you know how the injury occurred.
Heat Burns - We've all tried to eat something that is too hot -- pizza, hot tea, hot soup, something right out of the microwave -- and it only takes a second to burn your tongue. Your first instinct is to take a nice long drink of something cold, and in this case your instincts are correct. What most of us don't realize is that we should be cooling that burn down a lot longer than we think. Heat can continue to burn skin and tissue even after there is no contact with the source of the burn. If you don't cool down that burn adequately it will continue to damage the tissue of your tongue. Sipping ice water is the best way to go when it comes to a thermal tongue burn. Try to hold the ice water in your mouth a few seconds before swallowing. Thirty minutes or so of periodically sipping on ice water should be enough to cool the burn. Unless you want to wind up with a painfully stuck tongue don't put an ice pack or ice cube directly on the burn. If your tongue looks visibly damaged (beyond a little bit of redness) see a doctor. Do not put any kind of burn cream or ointment on it!
Chemical Burns - These are not nearly as common but can be extremely dangerous. If you or a loved one has a chemical burn on your tongue you should call poison control and/or 911 immediately. You should also try to find out if the chemical has touched any other part of your body. Read How to Decontaminate a Victim for instructions on safely decontaminating a person without exposing yourself. If you can get the container of the chemicals responsible it will be extremely helpful for medical professionals and first responders.
If you somehow burn your tongue with chemicals and have not swallowed them, you should first rinse with water. The chemicals will continue to burn the inside of your mouth and tongue until they are completely rinsed away. This could take a good hour or more of flushing with water. Do not swallow!
Burning Mouth Syndrome - Burning mouth syndrome is not actually an injury where the tongue is burned it just feels like your tongue has been burned. The burning sensation may not be limited to just the tongue but you may feel like your whole mouth is burning. Certain individuals are more likely to suffer from burning mouth syndrome including:
- women, especially menopausal women
- people with type 2 diabetes
- people suffering from malnutrition
- those with a history of anxiety or depression
Even though these conditions have been associated with burning mouth syndrome this illness is poorly understood. Some studies have suggested a dysfunction of the cranial nerves as the cause of burning mouth syndrome. It also seems to be associated with certain medications. Whatever the cause, the symptoms can last a long time (in some cases, years).
Some treatments your doctor might try for burning mouth syndrome include medications, such as tricyclic antidepressants, benzodiazepines, and anticonvulsants. Rinsing your mouth with a hot pepper (capsaicin) and water solution also seems to help.
Minor burns on the tongue usually disappear within days. If your tongue still feels burned, or if you are not sure how or when you burned it you should talk to your doctor about the possibility of burning mouth syndrome.
American Family Physician. Burning Mouth Syndrome. Accessed: December 15, 2010 from http://www.aafp.org/afp/2002/0215/p615.html
Medline Plus. Tongue Problems. Accessed: December 15, 2010 from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003047.htm