What Causes Tongue Ulcers?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

Also known as aphthous ulcers, a tongue ulcer is a condition in which sores appear on the surface of the tongue. In some cases, the appearance of the tongue ulcers will be light colored areas that are slightly inflamed. At other times, the ulcers will seem to sink into the surface of the tongue and be very sensitive to hot and cold. While there is some difference of opinion on exactly why mouth ulcers develop, there are a number of health issues that seem to lead to ulcers on the tongue.

A bad reaction to citrus fruits, such as oranges, could cause tongue ulcers.
A bad reaction to citrus fruits, such as oranges, could cause tongue ulcers.

As with many bodily ailments, there appears to be some correlation between stress and the development of ulcers on tongue tissue. There is some evidence that the prolonged and intense stress depletes the body of essential nutrients and over time can cause the immune system to weaken. As a result, the tissue of the tongue becomes more susceptible to bacteria and infection, allowing the tongue ulcers to form. Often, a regimen of vitamin supplementation and reducing stress can cure the ulcers on the tongue in a relatively short period of time.

Sores on the surface of the tongue are indicative of tongue ulcers.
Sores on the surface of the tongue are indicative of tongue ulcers.

A lack of sleep and general physical fatigue also seems to be among tongue ulcer causes. Poor sleep habits and the resulting negative impact on energy levels can also weaken the body’s defenses, leaving the tongue open to infection. Managing to get a recuperative night’s sleep each night will often allow the body to begin healing naturally and gradually heal any tongue ulcers that developed.

Rinsing with warm salt water can alleviate tongue ulcer pain and promote healing.
Rinsing with warm salt water can alleviate tongue ulcer pain and promote healing.

Allergies are also suspected of being the underlying cause of tongue ulcers. In particular a food allergy, such as a negative reaction to citrus fruits, may irritate the tongue and cause the ulcers to appear. Testing for and identifying food allergies make it possible to change dietary habits to avoid the use of any food or beverage that could be the cause of the ulcers, allowing the tongue to begin healing almost immediately.

There may be a correlation between stress and the onset of tongue ulcers.
There may be a correlation between stress and the onset of tongue ulcers.

Many believe that a hormone imbalance can lead to the development of tongue ulcers. Changes of this type may result due to a physical trauma that minimizes the body’s natural ability to produce hormones, shifts in hormone production as a result of a prolonged illness, or even a natural life event such as menopause. When hormones are suspected of being the underlying cause, restoring hormonal balance will often cause the tongue ulcers to fade in a short period of time.

Those with tongue ulcers may avoid eating citrus fruits, which may cause or exacerbate the ulcers.
Those with tongue ulcers may avoid eating citrus fruits, which may cause or exacerbate the ulcers.

Depending on the severity of the tongue ulcers, a physician may use medication to heal the ulcers while tests are ran to determine the origin of the health issue. Because there is no consensus on what causes a tongue ulcer to develop, it may take some time to identify the most likely underlying cause. Once the physician believes the most likely trigger has been identified, the ailment can be treated and hopefully the ulcers will not recur.

Tongue ulcers can cause pain when eating cold foods.
Tongue ulcers can cause pain when eating cold foods.
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments


During a hospitalization for a broken hip, my routine blood work indicated a severely low B12 level, which also explained several other health issues. After weeks of having B12 shots, all the issues were resolved, including the blisters and ulcers. Every time the blisters return, B12 cures them.

I was told that the medicine I must take for stomach acid hinders the absorption of B12. I also notice that my fingernails begin to show ridges when the level is below normal.


@SarahGen: Yes, herpes absolutely can cause ulcers! I didn't even know until this year that you could get oral herpes having only ever had it as external nasal cold sores, but have had multiple oral herpes infections now each producing ulcers. --TKR99


I've had sjogren's Syndrome for 16 years but it's now being classed as severe. I spent almost three months in hospital from April to June with chronic recurring mouth infections (thrush and herpes), and am currently battling a six-week tongue ulcer that's now become infected, and nothing so far has alleviated it. However, as I was on oral antibiotics for the first few weeks I'm hopeful that now I've finished the course, perhaps things will start to settle down. The ulcer is huge (3 cm x 2 cm) and at the tip of the tongue, making even talking painful. Vicious, nasty things!


As a doctor of holistic health, I discovered years ago that taking GABA in high doses to start will, within a very short time -- like hours -- start healing tongue sores, inside cheek sores and get this: herpes of any kind. You have to take mega doses but it does work -- almost immediately!


I'm suffering with a tongue ulcer now. It's very bad because I have difficulty in eating. Is it OK to continuously use a mouthwash (mint flavor)? What are the remedies to ease the pain?


I had a recent tragedy in my family on Friday so naturally I found it impossible to sleep a second before having to work all day Saturday and it seems to have just set my body into a complete state of shock! I have ulcers under my tongue and now some cold sores on my lips!


I get mouth ulcers if I don't get enough sleep. It takes a few days of short sleep before they start popping up, but I hate it when they do. There's nothing worse than a sore in your mouth.

The only good thing about them is they tend to heal quickly. I try to drink hot-ish tea, because that can help to disinfect them. And I'm careful to keep using mouthwash, even if it's painful, for the same reason.


@Zipline - Certain foods can definitely cause mouth ulcers. My sister managed to get blisters on her tongue from eating an extremely hot pepper for example (she did it on a dare I think). Eating a lot of citrus can also cause them, since the acid will wear away your skin over time.

Most foods are fine in moderation though. It's only when people eat to excess that they can be dangerous.


@ZipLine - If you have tongue ulcers, you'd know it. An ulcer is basically a sore that develops for no apparent physical reason, i.e. you've got a sore on your tongue that just appeared. They are quite painful, but essentially harmless themselves. I don't even bother treating mouth ulcers, I just let them go away by themselves.

It's only when they are there all the time and don't heal that you have to look for an underlying cause.

If you've got funny colored spots in your mouth though, they might be something else, so if you're worried ask your dentist or doctor about it, or at least have a look at pictures of mouth issues online to try and eliminate them.


Can the HPV virus (human papillomavirus) cause tongue ulcers?


Can I get tongue ulcers from certain foods?

And what do tongue ulcers look like exactly? I have light colored spots all over my tongue but I think those are normal. How can I tell if I have tongue ulcers or not?


I just found out today at the doctor's office the cause of my mouth ulcers on my tongue. It turns out that the stomach medication I've been taking for stomach acid has been inhibiting the absorption of vitamins in my digestive tract. I was suffering from a vitamin deficiency because of it. The doctor said the ulcers will go away when I stop taking the medication.

I have been so freaked out about this. I was even starting to suspect that I had some kind of a sexually transmitted disease. I'm so relieved.


@fBoyle-- Yea, multivitamin tablets will help. But I'd recommend that you get one which also has B vitamins in it. It might be a good idea to get a multivitamin and a B-complex.

Usually, the main ingredient in multivitamin tablets is vitamin C and that does help with some tongue ulcers. With me though, the best tongue ulcer treatment is a vitamin B-complex with a combination of vitamin Bs in it. That's why I'd recommend taking both. You could also just buy Vitamin C tablets and then Vitamin B-complex.


I've had a painful tongue ulcer for the past few days. I'm planning to buy some vitamins to see if it helps. Which type should I get? Will multi-vitamin tablets work?


@calabama71: It doesn't sound like a tongue ulcer because you would be experiencing other symptoms like pain and burning when you eat.

My tongue piercing did the same thing. It wasn't painful, just a white bump.

I went to the dentist because I didn't know what it was. He said that it was just where the skin that used to be in the hole where the piercing is was pushing its way to the surface.

He said it was nothing to worry about unless it got infected.


My 16 year old son got his tongue pierced about a month ago. Now, a white bump has popped up on his tongue right around where it is pierced. It is not infected and it doesn't hurt.

Could that be some kind of tongue ulcer?

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