August 19th, 2010
03:52 PM ET

How can I relieve the burning in my mouth?

As a feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers' questions. Here's a question for Dr. Gupta.

From Karen Burns, Matawan, New Jersey

"My mouth has been on fire for two years! I have burning mouth syndrome. Could you please provide information about this disturbing syndrome?”

Karen, thank you for your question. As you have experienced, burning mouth syndrome (BMS) can be a painful, frustrating condition that causes a sensation of moderate to severe burning in the mouth which can last from months to years. The pain can include your tongue, lips, gums, insides of your cheeks, roof of your mouth, and can feel like you’ve scalded your mouth.

While BMS can affect anybody, its more common among middle-aged or older women, according to the National Institutes of Health. Some people experience a bitter or metallic taste in their mouth, a dry or sore mouth, or tingling or numbness in the mouth and tongue. The pain can take on different patterns, according to the Mayo Clinic, including starting with mild pain when you awaken, but worsening as the day goes on, or it can be severe all day, from the beginning of the day. It can also come and go, or you may experience days without any pain at all.

The syndrome is frustrating because it’s often difficult or impossible to pin down the cause of the burning, making treatment a challenge. Possible causes range the gamut, including hormonal changes, nutritional deficiencies, oral candidiasis, acid reflux, ill-fitting dentures or an allergy to denture materials, dry mouth caused by medicines or disorders, damage to nerves that control pain and taste, excessive mouth irritation resulting from over brushing of your tongue, overuse of mouthwash, having too many acidic drinks, or anxiety and depression.

To diagnose BMS, your health care professional is likely to run blood work looking for signs of nutritional deficiencies, infection, and disorders that are associated with BMS, which include diabetes or thyroid problems. They will also swab your mouth to check for oral candidiasis. Another option is to test for allergies to denture materials, foods, or other substances that may be causing your condition.

When the cause of the BMS can’t be identified, it’s called primary, or idiopathic burning mouth syndrome. When the cause of BMS can be identified - such as a nutritional deficiency for iron, zinc, one of the B vitamins, or an allergy to denture materials, it’s called secondary burning mouth syndrome.

Your treatment for BMS will depend upon the cause of the burning. If your dentures are causing the irritation, they will need to be adjusted or replaced; if it’s due to a medical condition such as diabetes, Sjogren’s syndrome or a thyroid problem, your medical professional will treat the underlying condition; supplements will be used to treat a nutritional deficiency; if a prescription drug is causing your burning mouth, switching medications may be an option, and medications can be prescribed to relieve underlying conditions including anxiety and depression, dry mouth, oral candidiasis, and pain from nerve damage.

If a cause cannot be found for your BMS, your treatment will focus on relieving your symptoms of pain. There are also things that you can do to relieve mouth pain and dryness, including sucking on ice chips, chewing sugarless gum to keep your mouth moist, sipping water frequently, brushing your teeth or dentures with baking soda and water, and avoiding alcohol, tobacco, and irritating substances such as spicy foods, mouthwashes that contain drying alcohol, and acidic products like citrus fruits and juices.

Filed under: Expert Q&A

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.