We’ve all been there: You wake up, stumble over to the coffee pot, and desperately brew your delicious, caffeinated lifeblood. You finally get your cup, raise it to your lips… and promptly burn the crap out of your mouth. Eesh. What should you do when you burn your tongue? The simple answer is “Be patient and wait for it to heal,” but fortunately there are a few steps your can take in the interim to relieve your pain and get your poor mouth on the road to recovery as quickly as possible.
Burns on the tongue, lips, and roof of the mouth are very common for a couple of reasons: First, from pizza to tea to ramen, humans like to put hot things in their mouths, and often they aren’t very good at waiting for those things to cool down. Second, the mucus membrane lining the mouth is more delicate than the skin on other areas of the body and thus burns more easily. As Dr. Alison Bruce, dermatologist at The Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, explained to BuzzFeed, “The mouth is lined with a mucus membrane and there’s no spongy or fatty layer underneath like regular skin, so it just adheres to bone.” So, not only do people have a tendency to put piping hot liquids and foods in their mouths, their mouths are also more susceptible to burning than other parts of the body. No wonder we burn our tongues so often!
As with any other burns, burns on the mouth and tongue can range in severity. Most burns from hot foods and liquids are first-degree burns (the least severe type), and, though they may hurt in the moment, they’ll heal fairly quickly, usually within a week. (Thankfully, burns and wounds in the mouth heal more quickly than other areas of the body.) According to Healthline, first-degree tongue burns may be painful and display redness or swelling. More severe symptoms, like blisters, indicate a second-degree burn, and a white or black, visibly burnt tongue is a sign of a third-degree burn. If you have a severely burnt tongue (second or third-degree), you should seek treatment from medical professional for pain relief and help preventing infection.
That said, hot food and drinks aren’t likely to cause more than first-degree burns, which you can treat at home. Here’s what to do:
1. Cool off.
In the immediate aftermath of burning your mouth, you want to cool down the afflicted skin. Try swishing cold water or milk around your mouth to stop the burning and ease inflammation. You can also suck on a popsicle or ice chips (though, as BuzzFeed points out, it’s probably not a good idea to put a giant ice cube in your mouth, since your tongue could stick to it and cause more damage). Healthline also recommends putting a bit of sugar on the burned area to relieve pain.
2. Try over-the-counter painkillers (if you need to).
For most mild burns from hot food, you probably won’t need medication, but if the pain is getting hard to manage, you can take an over-the-counter painkiller like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. You can also try out a topical oral pain reliever like Orabase or Oragel.
3. Keep your mouth clean.
Your body already has amazing healing power— the best thing to do in the case of a mouth burn is step back, keep your mouth clean, and let your body do its work. Continue to brush your teeth regularly with a soft toothbrush, and rinse your mouth out with a salt-water solution (a half teaspoon of salt stirred into a cup of warm water) two or three times daily. The salt is an antiseptic and will help keep your burn free of infection. Otherwise, leave the burn alone, and, especially, don’t touch it with your fingers, which could irritate the skin and introduce bacteria.
4. Eat mild foods.
When a burn is healing in your mouth, it’s a good idea to stay away from foods that will irritate the damaged skin. That means staying away from spicy, acidic, or very hot foods, as well as crunchy, crusty, or prickly foods like crackers or chips. Instead, stick to mild, soft foods (so, yes, this is an excuse to eat ice cream until your burn heals).
Your burn should heal within a few days to a week. As you surely already know, you can avoid burns in the future by letting hot food cool before eating or drinking, taking small bites, and blowing on bites or beverages to cool them down. Certain mouth burns are inevitable, however — I’m not sure there’s any amount of common sense that could prevent a true coffee addict from gulping down boiling coffee early on a Monday morning, or keep people from biting into a sizzling slice of pizza after a long day. That’s just life. At least with these tips, you can help your tongue recover ASAP.