The Scientist: Alice G. Boghosian, D.D.S, a dentist in Illinois and consumer advisor to the American Dental Association
The Answer: A burn on your tongue is like a burn anywhere else on your body, but because your tongue is so sensitive it doesn’t take much to scorch that sucker. And obviously, you can’t just run it under water and slather on first aid ointment. No, a burned tongue requires a few special tricks.
Most cases of a burned tongue are considered first degree. Damage to the outermost layer—the epithelium—causes pain, redness and swelling (glossitis). The swelling is actually a good thing. It is an inflammatory response that means blood and fluid are rushing to the wound to heal it. But it can give you that uncomfortable numbed sensation because the area is being stretched by the inflammation, flattening out the bumpy papillae that line the surface of the tongue. The injured patch might even look unusually smooth and shiny as a result.
When something is swollen and painful, we typically run to the freezer to get some ice. Don’t do this. Putting an ice cube directly on your tongue can cause it to freeze to the tissue, like the flagpole in “A Christmas Story.” Then, when you pull it away, you may peel off additional tissue. Instead, rinse with cool water for a few minutes, replacing each mouthful as it gets warm. You can also swish around some Milk of Magnesia, which is designed to coat the moist epithelium of your digestive tract and help promote new cell growth. Anecdotally, folks say that pouring sugar on your tongue, then resting it on the roof of your mouth until it melts, helps a lot, though there’s no science to back this up. Ibuprofen can ease the inflammation, and a topical anesthetic like Anbesol or Orajel can temporarily numb the pain.
After you’ve burned your tongue, you want to avoid irritating it further, so stay away from more hot stuff, crunchy chips or spicey and acidic foods. Go for something cooling and soothing instead, such as yogurt, pudding and ice cream.
Avoiding a burned tongue in the first place is pretty much an exercise in common sense and restraint. If something is steaming, don’t put it in your mouth yet. If it’s too hot for the tip of your finger, it’s definitely too hot for the tip of your tongue. And be particularly careful with hot liquids, because they can cover a lot of area very quickly, and foods that hold onto heat well. This includes cheese, which is dense and also sticky; tomatoes, which act like little pressure cookers filled with hot juice and pent-up steam; and egg rolls, which trap heat inside. And since microwaves tend to heat unevenly, be vigilant after nuking—a perfectly palatable bite could be followed immediately by a molten assault.
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