Numb Tongue: Causes and Treatment

It is generally uncommon for the tongue to go numb so it can be quite a worrisome experience.

Numbness in the tongue is a result of injury, compression or irritation of a nerve or a branch of one of the nerves around the mouth. Sometimes, it presents as a tingly sensation or the feeling of ‘pins and needles’.

What Can Cause a Numb Tongue?

1. An Allergic Reaction

An allergic reaction to certain foods, chemicals or drugs you’ve been exposed to can make your tongue tingle and feel numb even at the tip. Allergies happen when your immune system gets confused and thinks that a relatively common food is not good for you. The most common foods to trigger allergies are:

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  • eggs
  • peanuts and tree nuts
  • fish
  • shellfish
  • milk
  • wheat

Some adults who are allergic to pollen can also react to some common raw fruits and vegetables. These cause mouth irritation and can make your tongue tingle, swell, or feel irritated.

Drug allergies can also cause your tongue to swell, itch, and tingle. While these reactions are often caused by antibiotics, any drug can trigger these symptoms.

2. Canker Sores

These are also known as aphthous ulcers. They are small, oval-shaped, shallow sores that can form on or around your tongue, inside your cheeks, or on your gums. Although the cause is not clear, things like minor injuries to your mouth, hormonal changes, viruses, inadequate nutrition or allergies can cause canker sores. This condition can lead to numbness of the tongue.

3. Infections

Bacterial and viral infections such as shingles can cause nerve injury that results in numbness of the face. This numbness can spread to also include the tongue and around the mouth.

4. Bell’s Palsy

Bell’s palsy is paralysis of the facial muscles due to damage or trauma to the facial nerve. Paralysis is usually sudden in onset and affects only one side of the face. This can cause numbness of the tongue on the affected side.

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5. Tongue Injury

A numb tongue can occur as a result of trauma, such as burns or even a bite to the tongue. Any injury to taste buds can cause tongue numbness and a decreased ability to taste. The numbness experienced in such cases may be temporary and improves with treatment.

6. Autoimmune Diseases

Autoimmune diseases are diseases that result from the body attacking itself. These diseases also affect the nerves in the tongue and cause an injury that results in numbness of the tongue. Conditions such as Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and Systemic Lupus Erythematosis (SLE, Lupus) are examples of such autoimmune diseases.

7. Local Anesthesia

If you have had recent dental work done like a tooth extraction or root canal; receiving local anesthesia during the procedure can also lead to a numb tongue.

8. Vitamin B Deficiency

There are certain vitamins that are essential to healthy nerve function like B-12 and B-9 (folate). Deficiencies in these vitamins can lead to nerve damage and injury. Having low levels of vitamin B-12 or vitamin B-9  can make your tongue sore, swollen and affect your sense of taste.

Vitamin B-12 or folate deficiency is caused by either an inadequate amount of these vitamins in your diet or an inability to absorb these vitamins from the diet.

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9. Burning Mouth Syndrome

Burning mouth syndrome is a condition where you experience intermittent episodes of severe burning in the tongue, lips, and gum. Its cause is unknown, but it is thought that deficiency of Vitamin B-12 or hormonal disturbances may cause it.

The symptoms vary from person to person and include changes in the sense of taste, dry mouth and a metallic taste in the mouth.

10. Hypocalcemia

This is a medical condition where the level of calcium in your blood drops to a level below normal. This may cause tingling in your tongue and lips.

11. Neurologic Disease

Numbness of the tongue or around the mouth can often be the symptom of a central nervous system condition such as a migraine or stroke.

12. Hypoglycemia

This is a condition where the blood sugar level drops below the normal level. It can also affect the way your nerves function causing numbness and tingling in the tongue.

13. Decreased Blood Supply

Tongue numbness can also occur when the tongue is not receiving enough blood as a result of certain conditions like tumors.

14. Other Causes

Other factors that can damage the taste buds and result in a numb tongue are increasing age, alcohol abuse, gum disease, ill-fitting dentures, and smoking.

When To See Your Doctor

Numbness of the tongue is a symptom that may require a visit to your doctor. The numbness may be temporary and resolve over time or may require treatment.

If you have additional symptoms like those below, it may be suggestive of a stroke and requires urgent medical attention:

  • Slow or slurred speech
  • Complete loss of taste
  • Abrupt and severe headache
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Weakness or one-sided facial paralysis
  • Confusion, delusion or hallucinations
  • Numbness on one side of the body
  • Complete or partial paralysis
  • Seizures
  • Swelling in the tongue, face or lips
  • Persistent bitter or bad taste in the mouth

To know the exact cause of a numb tongue, a proper medical history, and physical exam will be carried out by your doctor. Also, investigations like X-rays, scans, and blood tests may be required.

Treatment

Treatment for a numb tongue is dependent on the underlying cause.

If the numbness is as a result of damage to the nerve due to local anesthesia, it will also resolve over time. For food or drug allergies, try to identify the main trigger and stop consumption right away. Ensure you contact your doctor if you have other symptoms like difficulty breathing, difficulty swallowing, lip or mouth swelling, and constant itchiness.

If you have a canker sore, avoid spicy foods. For pain relief, try rinsing your mouth with a warm saltwater solution.

Hypoglycemia is primarily associated with diabetes, but it can happen to anyone. Eating or drinking something with sugar in it can help bring the blood sugar levels back to normal.

If due to hypocalcemia, the underlying cause is treated and calcium supplements may be prescribed to correct the deficiency. For burning mouth syndrome, avoid taking alcohol, tobacco, and spicy foods. Also, the underlying cause must be treated.

If the numb tongue is due to vitamin deficiency, high doses of these vitamins are taken in addition to fruits and green leafy vegetables. If the deficiency is not treated in time, it could lead to permanent damage.

If as a result of an infection, medications will be prescribed by your doctor.

For medical conditions like stroke, or migraine, consult your doctor immediately.

If as a result of Bell’s palsy, symptoms usually resolve within two weeks to six months. Treatment is done to help reduce inflammation or target the underlying cause of the nerve paralysis.

Prevention

  • Eat a balanced diet rich in essential vitamins to keep the nerves healthy like fruits, vegetables, grains, and lean proteins.
  • Avoid foods that may trigger an allergic reaction. Take note of foods that seem to trigger allergy symptoms.
  • Maintain an optimal weight with regular exercise to prevent and also control diseases such as diabetes that can cause tongue numbness.

Summary

A numb tongue is a rare occurrence but when it happens, it may or may not require treatment. You’ll need to visit your doctor if you notice any changes in your tongue.

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