Burning mouth syndrome is the medical term for ongoing or recurring burning in the mouth without an obvious cause. You may feel this burning on your tongue, gums, lips, inside of your cheeks, roof of your mouth or large areas of your whole mouth. The feeling of burning can be severe, as if you injured your mouth with a very hot drink.
Burning mouth syndrome usually comes on suddenly, but it can develop slowly over time. Often the specific cause can't be found. Although that makes treatment more challenging, working closely with your health care team can help you reduce symptoms.
Symptoms of burning mouth syndrome may include:
- A burning or scalding feeling that most commonly affects your tongue, but also may affect your lips, gums, roof of your mouth, throat or whole mouth.
- A feeling of dry mouth with increased thirst.
- Taste changes in your mouth, such as a bitter or metallic taste.
- Loss of taste.
- Tingling, stinging or numbness in your mouth.
The discomfort from burning mouth syndrome can have several different patterns. It may:
- Happen every day, with little discomfort when waking up, but become worse as the day goes on.
- Start as soon as you wake up and last all day.
- Come and go.
Whatever pattern of mouth discomfort you have, burning mouth syndrome may last for months to years. In rare cases, symptoms may suddenly go away on their own or happen less often. Sometimes the burning feeling may be briefly relieved during eating or drinking.
Burning mouth syndrome usually doesn't cause any physical changes to your tongue or mouth that can be seen.
When to see a doctor
If you have discomfort, burning or soreness of your tongue, lips, gums or other areas of your mouth, see your health care provider or dentist. They may need to work together to help pinpoint a cause and come up with an effective treatment plan.
The cause of burning mouth syndrome may be primary or secondary.
Primary burning mouth syndrome
When the cause can't be found, the condition is called primary or idiopathic burning mouth syndrome. Some research suggests that primary burning mouth syndrome is related to problems with the nerves involved with taste and pain.
Secondary burning mouth syndrome
Sometimes burning mouth syndrome is caused by an underlying medical condition. In these cases, it's called secondary burning mouth syndrome.
Underlying problems that may be linked to secondary burning mouth syndrome include:
- Dry mouth, which can be caused by some medicines, health problems, problems with the glands that make saliva or the side effects of cancer treatment.
- Other oral conditions, such as a fungal infection of the mouth called oral thrush, an inflammatory condition called oral lichen planus or a condition called geographic tongue that gives the tongue a maplike appearance.
- Not getting enough nutrients, such as a lack of iron, zinc, folate (vitamin B-9), thiamin (vitamin B-1), riboflavin (vitamin B-2), pyridoxine (vitamin B-6) and cobalamin (vitamin B-12).
- Allergies or reactions to foods, food flavorings, other food additives, fragrances or dyes, dental materials, or mouth care products.
- Reflux of stomach acid that enters your mouth from your stomach, also called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
- Certain medicines, especially high blood pressure medicines.
- Oral habits, such as pushing your tongue against your teeth, biting the tip of your tongue, and grinding or clenching your teeth.
- Endocrine disorders, such as diabetes or an underactive thyroid known as hypothyroidism.
- A very irritated mouth, which may result from brushing your tongue too much or too hard, using abrasive toothpastes, overusing mouthwashes, or having too many acidic foods or drinks. Dentures that don't fit well may cause irritation that can make symptoms worse.
- Psychological issues, such as anxiety, depression or stress.
Burning mouth syndrome is uncommon. However, your risk may be greater if you're:
- In perimenopause or you're postmenopausal.
- Over the age of 50.
- A smoker.
Burning mouth syndrome usually starts suddenly, for no known reason. But certain factors may increase your risk of developing burning mouth syndrome, including:
- Recent illness.
- Some long-term medical conditions such as fibromyalgia, Parkinson's disease, autoimmune disorders and neuropathy.
- Previous dental work.
- Allergic reactions to food.
- Certain medicines.
- Traumatic life events.
Complications that burning mouth syndrome may cause are mainly related to discomfort, such as problems falling asleep or difficulty eating. Long-term cases involving a lot of discomfort also could lead to anxiety or depression.
There's no known way to prevent burning mouth syndrome. But you may be able to reduce your discomfort by not using tobacco, limiting acidic or spicy foods, not drinking carbonated beverages, and using stress management methods. Or these measures may prevent your discomfort from feeling worse.