Tongue Herpes: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment Methods

Tongue Herpes: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment Methods
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Tongue Herpes: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment MethodsClinical Content Reviewed by Dr. Jay Khorsandi, DDS
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Table of Contents

  1. What Are Tongue Herpes?
  2. Causes
  3. Symptoms
  4. Treatment
  5. Prevention
  6. References

Tongue herpes is a type of oral herpes, or herpes simplex virus (HSV) I. These sores can hurt and make eating or drinking some of your favorite things difficult.

Typically, oral herpes outbreaks do not last very long. While you wait for the outbreak to clear, take care of your oral health with saltwater rinses. Visit your doctor or dentist if you experience severe or frequent outbreaks.

What Are Tongue Herpes?

Sometimes you may develop a spot on your lip, inside your mouth, on your tongue, or on your gums that looks like a pimple. You may have heard this referred to as a cold sore or fever blister, but this pimple or cluster of pimples is oral herpes, or herpes simplex virus (HSV) I.

Between 50 and 80 percent of adults in the United States have oral herpes, which is often contracted during childhood from contact with a relative or friend who has oral herpes. This virus can also be contracted during adulthood through sexual contact, and it is considered a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Since it is very common, you are more likely to know someone who has HSV I than not.

While oral herpes outbreaks are most noticeable on the lips, they can also occur inside the mouth, including on the tongue. Outbreaks inside the mouth and on the tongue can be painful, but you can manage symptoms of the outbreak until it goes away. You can also manage your personal contact to reduce the risk of spreading HSV I to another person.

Causes of Tongue Herpes

Causes of Tongue Herpes Outbreak

If you have a fever blister or cold sore on your tongue, that typically means you are having a minor outbreak of oral herpes. The outbreak might be accompanied by other cold sores elsewhere in your mouth or on your lips, but not necessarily.

Outbreaks have no specific cause but might be triggered by the following:

  • Stress
  • Direct sunlight
  • Another recent infection
  • Hormonal changes or menstruation
  • Physical injury or surgery

They may also occur at random. It can take one week to 10 days for the outbreak to heal.

Symptoms

You may experience these symptoms during an outbreak:

  • Itchiness around where the outbreak might occur, including itching or a feeling of being tickled on the tongue
  • Painful blisters that are filled with fluid
  • Leaking fluid as the sores open
  • Pain or aching at the site as the sores heal

You may also have other symptoms that affect your full body, including these:

  • Fever
  • Aches and pains
  • Feeling rundown or fatigued
  • Headaches
  • Chills

If you have never had an outbreak of HSV I in or around your mouth, including on your tongue, you should contact a doctor to diagnose this condition. The first outbreak typically occurs 2 to 20 days after contact, and it is usually the worst one; it can last for 2 to 4 weeks.

There are no cures for HSV, but if you have frequent outbreaks, you can have antiviral medications prescribed to you.
When an outbreak does occur, the best thing to do is take it easy. Do not let anyone come in contact with your mouth or share utensils or makeup with you.

Treatment for Tongue Herpes

Outbreaks can be painful, and you might feel frustrated while they heal, but you can manage symptoms while you wait. Here are some suggestions to ease pain on your tongue while the HSV outbreak heals:

  • Keep the infected area clean, which can involve warm saltwater mouth rinses.
  • Avoid irritants like cigarettes, alcohol, some commercial mouthwashes, and foods that are spicy, acidic, or sugary.
  • Take over-the-counter painkillers like ibuprofen to ease pain.
  • If the outbreak does not begin to heal after a few days, visit your doctor to see if there is a secondary infection that needs treatment.
  • Be very gentle when you brush your teeth.
  • Get a new toothbrush once the outbreak has cleared.
  • Get enough rest if you have more intense full body symptoms like fatigue or achiness.

Usually, doctors do not prescribe medication to manage oral herpes outbreaks, but if you have frequent outbreaks, you may receive a prescription for an antiviral medication like acyclovir, famciclovir, or valacyclovir, which are the most effective prescription pills available to suppress the herpes virus. You may also receive a topical antiviral ointment like acyclovir or penciclovir if you get blisters on your lips, but these may not be suitable to apply on your tongue.

Sometimes, a secondary bacterial infection can take hold, so your doctor or dentist might also prescribe an antibiotic mouth rinse. Using a gentle saltwater rinse can reduce the risk of infection and help to ease some symptoms of the outbreak on your tongue.

how to prevent tongue herpes

Prevention of Tongue Herpes

Following your doctor’s advice to manage outbreaks is the best route. Currently, there is no cure for herpes. Preventing transmission to others is important. While you have an outbreak, you should avoid these things:

  • Kissing and other intimate contact with your mouth
  • Sharing food or utensils
  • Sharing drinks
  • Sharing toothbrushes or oral care items
  • Sharing lipstick, lip gloss, or similar items

Once the outbreak has healed, you should replace your toothbrush, tongue scraper, and other items you use to clean your teeth and mouth. Ask your dentist how best to clean your oral appliances, like clear plastic aligners, if you use these. This can reduce the risk of future outbreaks or your chances of spreading the virus to others.

Oral herpes is a common condition that rarely causes long, painful outbreaks. When you do have outbreaks, including on your tongue, managing symptoms and reducing the spread of the virus are the most important steps.

General References

Oral Herpes. Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Oral & Genital Herpes. Planned Parenthood.

Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) Mouth Infection. Cedars Sinai.

When Should I Suspect Oral Herpes Simplex? (October 2016). National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).

Disclaimer: This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to serve as dental or other professional health advice and is not intended to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any condition or symptom. You should consult a dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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