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Herpes on Tongue: Common Symptoms, Prevention and Treatment

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What is herpes on the tongue, what causes it, and how do you treat it? Many people are familiar with cold sores that appear on the lips, but what many people are not aware of is that this painful chronic infection can appear inside the mouth too.

Herpes on Tongue
Cold sores or herpes on your tongue can be very painful

If you have herpes on your tongue and are looking for information on this disease, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we’ll explore the common causes and remedies of this condition and also seek answers to queries like:       

  • What are the causes of herpes on the tongue?         
  • What does herpes in the mouth look like?        
  • Are there different stages of oral herpes? What are they?        
  • How to prevent oral herpes
  • How do you treat herpes on the tongue?

Frequency of oral herpes

Herpes on the tongue is quite common nowadays, which makes it even more important to learn about prevention and treatment for the sake of your oral health. The infection can lead to anything from subtle irritation to blistering sores. Since the virus can be easily transmitted through skin-to-skin or oral contact, there is a large segment of the world population that is infected with this condition. Here’s a study from World Health Organization conducted in 2012 that estimates about 3.7 billion people under the age of 50 to be suffering from this chronic infection.

Oral Herpes can occur in different ways

There is more than one place where you can have oral herpes. You can have:

  • Herpes of the throat
  • Herpes on the gums
  • Herpes on the roof of the mouth

For some people, symptoms may even appear on the upper lip, on or inside the nose, or on the cheek or chin. All variations of this disease can be exceptionally painful and unpleasant to look at. Also, the treatment for each variation can be different, also depending on the severity.

What are the causes of herpes on the tongue?

The primary cause of oral herpes is Herpes Simplex Virus-1 (herpes HSV-1), commonly appearing in the form of blisters on the tongue, lips, the inner lining of cheeks, gums, and roof of the mouth. The infection can also spread to your throat, nose, and chin.

In the video below, a doctor provides information on what herpes or cold sores are, what they look like, what causes them, and more.

Although there can be multiple ways of coming in contact with the herpes HSV-1 virus, it is commonly spread through the skin or oral contact. Many children are carriers of the virus as they are most likely to get infected from adults through direct contact and common affectionate gestures like kissing and hugging.

The virus is highly contagious and since the infection is asymptomatic, you may never know that you have the infection. Here’s a study from Johns Hopkins Medicine that depicts the extent of infection to be around 50 to 80 percent in adults in the United States with no symptoms whatsoever.

Although for the most part, the infection spreads through direct contact, there are other practices as well that might cause the virus to spread:

  • Eating and drinking from the same utensils    
  • Sharing lip balms, Vaseline, and other cosmetic items  
  • Sharing cigarettes
  • Oral intimacy

What does herpes in the mouth look like?

Herpes often leads to large sores around the lips or on the tongue, but the infection doesn’t cause sores immediately. Rather, at the initial stage of the infection, you might notice flu-like symptoms and headache. The degree of these symptoms may range from person to person, and in many cases, the infection can be asymptomatic too. It is after a few days after the infection that you can develop blisters inside your mouth and affected areas.

These blisters in the elementary stage are red and may cause the area infected to itch and cause irritation while eating and drinking. Over the next few days, the blisters become more painful and fluid starts to develop inside them. Take care while dealing with fluid leaking blisters as the fluid is highly contagious and any surface that comes in contact with it can develop an infection. Over the course of a few days, these blisters become sores and eventually crust over and heal.

What are the different stages of oral herpes?

Regardless of where the infection may be inside the mouth, the different stages of oral herpes are:

Initial Infection

Initial stage of herpes on tongue
Initial stage of Cold Sore on the Tongue

The primary stage includes exposure to the herpes virus and its reproduction that can cause symptoms like headache, fever, muscle pain, and gum pain. In most cases, the infected person may not experience any of these symptoms and might notice some irritation or a burning sensation in the infected area. In the worst cases, people have also reported burning mouth problems. Symptoms during the initial phase of infection can vary from person to person.

Latency

In this second stage, the herpes virus spreads from the original infection spot to nervous tissue gatherings in your spine, called dorsal root ganglia. The virus reproduces again in this stage and becomes dormant.

Re-infection or recurrence

Often stimulated by emotional and physical stress, the herpes virus that is silently residing in your body activates again to cause the initial infection symptoms and sores in the mouth and other areas like the neck, chin, and lips.

How to prevent oral herpes

Medical science has always promoted prevention over treatment if possible. And this ideology becomes quite significant in tackling infections like oral herpes that have no cure. You can adopt the following strategies to avoid getting infected from the herpes HSV-1 virus.

  • Avoid direct contact with the infected person: Herpes sores and blisters are quite visible, and you can easily detect the infection in someone with some awareness about the condition. Even if not visible, often people will themselves will let you know they have it. As the virus is contagious you should avoid any form of direct contact with the infected person.
  • Do not share utensils and other items with the infected person: The second common reason for herpes virus spread is through objects that the infected person might have used. You should avoid using objects like utensils, straws, and food items that might carry the virus from the infected person. These practices are common in friends and family, but with the right awareness, it’s everyone’s responsibility to make others aware of their disease and promote preventive measures.
  • Washing items of common use: Another way to decrease transmission of the simplex virus is to regularly wash and sterilize shared utensils in hot water. This way the herpes virus is killed before it can spread.
  • Avoid Oral Intimacy: If you or your partner is suffering from sores and blisters, oral intimacy can lead to the spread of the virus to genitals. This six-year study by the National Center of Biotechnology Information, stresses the ability of the herpes primary infection to spread through physical intimacy. The genital spread of the herpes virus can lead to many medical complications.
  • Stress can lead to recurrence: The herpes HSV-1 virus can reside in your body for years with absolutely no symptoms at all. Emotional and physical stress can trigger and reactivate the virus.

How do you treat herpes on your tongue?

Oral herpes on the tongue will go away on its own, but having said that, the sores can be quite painful and irritating. Consulting a physician should be the first step towards treatment. Professionals usually prescribe a topical anesthetic to relieve your pain and may recommend more medicines depending on the severity of the symptoms of herpes sores inside the mouth. However, there are still some measures that you can adopt at home to treat herpes sores on your tongue.

Herpes on Tongue needs quick remedial action to ease discomfort
Herpes on the tongue needs quick remedial action to ease discomfort
  • Keep the infected area dry and clean: Regularly sterilizing and keeping the infected area clean will not only prevent the infection from spreading but also make faster recovery possible. You will gradually see the results with herpes sores inside your mouth crusting faster and not spreading. However, you need to be meticulous about care and you will have to keep items like cotton and freshwater with you at all times.
  • Natural Remedies: There are tons of naturally occurring liquids and compounds that have antiviral and antibacterial properties. You can regularly use such solutions to treat tongue herpes. Some of these compounds include essential oils, lemon balm, milk, and petroleum jelly to name a few.
  • Over the counter medication: Many over the counter medicines like Abreva and Zilactin particularly help with oral herpes. They can be bought online and some even offer child-friendly dosages.
  • Zinc Oxide Creams: Quite effective in treating herpes under the tongue, Zinc oxide creams can be applied to dampen reproduction and spread of the virus. 
  • Maintain good oral Hygiene: A good oral routine always works wonders for common oral issues, even with chronic problems like oral herpes.

This is quite an extensive list of remedies that you can opt for and they don’t even require physician consultation. However, it's quite possible that you might confuse other symptoms with tongue herpes, and you might be trying to treat a non-existent disease. So, it’s always recommended to consult a doctor to avoid further problems. You can always opt for these remedies in case of recurrence of the disease.

Conclusion

Herpes on the tongue and other areas of the mouth is quite common nowadays. The contagious nature of the virus makes it difficult to avoid catching. While the symptoms are not life-threatening, it can cause significant pain and discomfort and temporary aesthetic side effects. Many people who have herpes may not even know it, because they rarely or never have any symptoms. This makes the transmission of the virus even easier.

The good news is that herpes isn't life-threatening, and if you proper follow care guidelines, it doesn't need to have a huge impact on your life or oral health. It is, however, an extra good reason to make sure that the other aspects of your oral health routine are optimized, and if you do have it, you should always let people know before sharing utensils or engaging in intimate activities like kissing.

FAQs

Why am I getting sores on my tongue?

Oral herpes can lead to infection inside your mouth. This can often be accompanied by blisters on your tongue, lips, gums, the inner lining of your cheeks, and the roof of the mouth. These blisters gradually become sores that are filled with contagious fluid. So, the sores that you might be seeing on your tongue may be a result of the simplex virus which causes herpes inside the mouth.

If you are not careful, the fluid from these sores can lead to spreading to other areas like your throat. The sores on the tongue or in your mouth might recur, as the simplex virus can reside inactive for years in one’s body. Tongue sores do not require treatment and will generally go away after 9-10 days. If you experience severe pain and irritation while eating or drinking, consult a doctor.

Can you get oral herpes on your tongue?

The tongue is actually one of the most common areas to get infected with oral herpes. Ranging from inflamed bumps to blisters and sores, the infection can cause irritation while eating or drinking. Since the virus is quite contagious you might want to refrain from sharing utensils to avoid the spread. Often, adults transfer viruses through a kiss or hug to children.

Also, for the sake of your partner’s health, use protection during oral intimacy, as it can lead to the spread of the virus to the genitals and which can lead to serious medical complications.

How do you get rid of oral herpes?

Although there is no cure or vaccine for oral herpes, there are several measures that you can adopt to get rid of the problem:

Action/treatment Benefit Approximate cost
Consult a doctor Doctors can prescribe you drugsthat help in speedy recoveryafter infection. Medical advice isthe way to go in case you areexperiencing severe pain anddiscomfort. Differs from doctor to doctor
Home remedies Opting for essential oils andnatural products can help youtreat oral herpes. The naturalingredients of such remediesbear positive effect on yourbody. You might have these at home
Over the counter medication If you don’t want to bear thecost of professionalconsultation, you can opt forover the counter creams andproducts to treat heroes on yourtongue. $15 to $50
Good oral health routine A healthy oral routine goes along way in treating such viralinfection. It also ensures thatsuch infections are notrecurring. No more than your toothpaste, a toothbrush and floss

What does herpes on the tongue look like?

Herpes on the tongue usually starts around 2-12 days after catching the infection, and lasts, on average, for about 7-10 days. The infection may manifest starting with small, shallow, gray-colored ulcers with a red base. Thereafter, they turn into crusted, scabbed, dry and yellow blisters. For some serious cases, a grayish coating on the tonsils may appear and the patient may also experience a sore throat with shallow ulcers.

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Contributors:
Sukriti Taneja
Sukriti Taneja
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Sukriti is a content writer specializing in the healthcare niche. She is an ex-software engineer who's given up IT for writing full-time. She's been writing for 7 years and regularly creates optimized and targeted content for multiple domains including health, technology, education, entertainment, and more.
Sources
who.int: Herpes simplex virus. Consulted 3rd May 2020. hopkinsmedicine.org: Oral Herpes. Consulted 3rd May 2020. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov: Six-Year Study of the Incidence of Herpes in Genital and Nongenital Cultures. Consulted 4th May 2020. cedars-sinai.org: Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) Mouth Infection. Consulted 4th May 2020.  
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