Burning mouth syndrome is the medical term for ongoing (chronic) or recurrent burning in the mouth without an obvious cause. This discomfort may affect the tongue, gums, lips, inside of your cheeks, roof of your mouth (palate) or widespread areas of your whole mouth. The burning sensation can be severe, as if you scalded your mouth.
Burning mouth syndrome usually appears suddenly, but it can develop gradually over time. Unfortunately, the specific cause often can't be determined. 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 sensation that most commonly affects your tongue, but may also affect your lips, gums, palate, throat or whole mouth
- A sensation 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 typically has several different patterns. It may:
- Occur every day, with little discomfort when you wake, but become worse as the day progresses
- 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 become less frequent. Some sensations may be temporarily relieved during eating or drinking.
Burning mouth syndrome usually doesn't cause any noticeable physical changes to your tongue or mouth.
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 doctor or dentist. They may need to work together to help pinpoint a cause and develop an effective treatment plan.
The cause of burning mouth syndrome can be classified as either primary or secondary.
Primary burning mouth syndrome
When no clinical or lab abnormalities can be identified, the condition is called primary or idiopathic burning mouth syndrome. Some research suggests that primary burning mouth syndrome is related to problems with taste and sensory nerves of the peripheral or central nervous system.
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 (xerostomia), which can be caused by various medications, health problems, problems with salivary gland function or the side effects of cancer treatment
- Other oral conditions, such as a fungal infection of the mouth (oral thrush), an inflammatory condition called oral lichen planus or a condition called geographic tongue that gives the tongue a maplike appearance
- Nutritional deficiencies, 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, dyes or dental-work substances
- Reflux of stomach acid (gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD) that enters your mouth from your stomach
- Certain medications, particularly high blood pressure medications
- Oral habits, such as tongue thrusting, biting the tip of the tongue and teeth grinding (bruxism)
- Endocrine disorders, such as diabetes or underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism)
- Excessive mouth irritation, which may result from overbrushing your tongue, using abrasive toothpastes, overusing mouthwashes or having too many acidic drinks
- Psychological factors, such as anxiety, depression or stress
Wearing dentures, even if they don't fit well and cause irritation, doesn't generally cause burning mouth syndrome, but dentures can make symptoms worse.
Burning mouth syndrome is uncommon. However, your risk may be greater if:
- You're a woman
- You're perimenopausal or postmenopausal
- You're over the age of 50
Burning mouth syndrome usually begins spontaneously, with no known triggering factor. However, certain factors may increase your risk of developing burning mouth syndrome, including:
- Recent illness
- Some chronic medical disorders such as fibromyalgia, Parkinson's disease, autoimmune disorders and neuropathy
- Previous dental procedures
- Allergic reactions to food
- Traumatic life events
Complications that burning mouth syndrome may cause or be associated with are mainly related to discomfort. They include, for example:
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Difficulty eating
There's no known way to prevent burning mouth syndrome. But by avoiding tobacco, acidic foods, spicy foods and carbonated beverages, and excessive stress, you may be able to reduce the discomfort from burning mouth syndrome or prevent your discomfort from feeling worse.
There's no one test that can determine if you have burning mouth syndrome. Instead, your doctor will try to rule out other problems before diagnosing burning mouth syndrome.
Your doctor or dentist likely will:
- Review your medical history and medications
- Examine your mouth
- Ask you to describe your symptoms, oral habits and oral care routine
In addition, your doctor will likely perform a general medical exam, looking for signs of other conditions. You may have some of the following tests:
- Blood tests. Blood tests can check your complete blood count, glucose level, thyroid function, nutritional factors and immune functioning, all of which may provide clues about the source of your mouth discomfort.
- Oral cultures or biopsies. Taking and analyzing samples from your mouth can determine whether you have a fungal, bacterial or viral infection.
- Allergy tests. Your doctor may suggest allergy testing to see if you may be allergic to certain foods, additives or even substances in dental work.
- Salivary measurements. With burning mouth syndrome, your mouth may feel dry. Salivary tests can confirm whether you have a reduced salivary flow.
- Gastric reflux tests. These tests can determine if you have GERD.
- Imaging. Your doctor may recommend an MRI scan, a CT scan or other imaging tests to check for other health problems.
- Medication adjustment. If you take a medication that may contribute to mouth discomfort, your doctor may change the dose, switch to a different medication, or temporarily stop the medication, if possible, to see if your discomfort goes away. Don't try this on your own, because it can be dangerous to stop some medications.
- Psychological questionnaires. You may be asked to fill out questionnaires that can help determine if you have symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions.
Treatment depends on whether you have primary or secondary burning mouth syndrome.
Secondary burning mouth syndrome
For secondary burning mouth syndrome, treatment depends on any underlying conditions that may be causing your mouth discomfort.
For example, treating an oral infection or taking supplements for a vitamin deficiency may relieve your discomfort. That's why it's important to try to pinpoint the cause. Once any underlying causes are treated, your burning mouth syndrome symptoms should get better.
Primary burning mouth syndrome
There's no known cure for primary burning mouth syndrome and there's no one sure way to treat it. Solid research on the most effective methods is lacking. Treatment depends on your particular symptoms and is aimed at controlling them. You may need to try several treatment methods before finding one or a combination that helps reduce your mouth discomfort. And it may take time for treatments to help manage symptoms.
Treatment options may include:
- Saliva replacement products
- Specific oral rinses or lidocaine
- Capsaicin, a pain reliever that comes from chili peppers
- An anticonvulsant medication called clonazepam (Klonopin)
- Certain antidepressants
- Medications that block nerve pain
- Cognitive behavioral therapy to develop strategies to address anxiety and depression and cope with chronic pain
In addition to medical treatment and prescription medications, these self-help measures may reduce your symptoms and your mouth discomfort:
- Drink plenty of fluids to help ease the feeling of dry mouth, or suck on ice chips.
- Avoid acidic foods and liquids, such as tomatoes, orange juice, carbonated beverages and coffee.
- Avoid alcohol and products with alcohol, as they may irritate the lining of your mouth.
- Don't use tobacco products.
- Avoid spicy-hot foods.
- Avoid products with cinnamon or mint.
- Try different mild or flavor-free toothpastes, such as one for sensitive teeth or one without mint or cinnamon.
- Take steps to reduce stress.
Burning mouth syndrome can be uncomfortable and frustrating. It can reduce your quality of life if you don't take steps to stay positive and hopeful.
Consider some of these techniques to help you cope with the chronic discomfort of burning mouth syndrome:
- Practice relaxation exercises, such as yoga.
- Engage in pleasurable activities, such as physical activities or hobbies, especially when you feel anxious.
- Try to stay socially active by connecting with understanding family and friends.
- Join a chronic pain support group.
- Talk to a mental health professional for strategies that can help you cope.
You're likely to start by first seeing your family doctor or dentist for mouth discomfort. Because burning mouth syndrome is associated with such a wide variety of other medical conditions, your doctor or dentist may refer you to another specialist, such as a skin doctor (dermatologist), an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor, or another type of doctor.
What you can do
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment:
- Ask if there's anything you need to do before the appointment, such as restrict your diet.
- Make a list of your symptoms, including any that may seem unrelated to your mouth discomfort.
- Make a list of key personal information, including any major stresses or recent life changes.
- Make a list of all medications, vitamins, herbs or other supplements that you're taking and the dosages.
- Bring a copy of all previous consultations and tests you've had about this problem.
- Take a family member or friend with you, if possible, for support and to help you remember everything.
- Prepare questions ahead of time to ask your doctor.
Questions to ask your doctor may include:
- What's likely causing my symptoms or condition?
- Other than the most likely cause, what are other possible causes?
- What kinds of tests do I need?
- Is my mouth discomfort likely temporary or chronic?
- What's the best course of action?
- What are the alternatives to the primary approach that you're suggesting?
- I have these other health conditions. How can I best manage them together?
- Are there any restrictions that I need to follow?
- Should I see a specialist?
- Is there a generic alternative to the medicine you're prescribing?
- Are there any printed materials that I can have? What websites do you recommend?
Don't hesitate to ask additional questions during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, such as:
- When did you begin experiencing symptoms?
- Have your symptoms been continuous or occasional?
- How severe are your symptoms?
- What, if anything, seems to improve your symptoms?
- What, if anything, seems to worsen your symptoms?
- Do you use tobacco or drink alcohol?
- Do you frequently eat acidic or spicy foods?
- Do you wear dentures?
Your doctor will ask additional questions based on your responses, symptoms and needs. Preparing and anticipating questions will help you make the most of your time.