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Nearly everyone burns their tongue sooner or later. Scalding hot coffee, or soup that was in the microwave too long, or bubbly cheese eventually meet up with tender tongue, with predictably painful results. Whether or not you actually need medical attention depends on the severity of the burn.

A first-degree burn on the tongue will result in a painful, red, possibly swollen tongue but will only damage its outer layer. This is a burn you can take care of yourself.

A second-degree burn on the tongue destroys both the outer layers of the tongue and some of the tissue beneath them. This even more painful burn will be followed by blisters as well as pain and swelling. It's the sort of thing you need to get your doctor to take a look at as soon as possible.

A third-degree burn on the tongue extends down into the nerves and muscles. It's a medical emergency that you cannot treat on your own. See a doctor right away. You probably will do this on your own, because it will be excruciatingly painful and probably affect other structures in your mouth.

Minor, first-degree burns to the tongue usually destroy the papillae, the bumps on your tongue. Many of the papillae contain your taste buds, sbut these tiny bumps also clean the tongue or provide the friction necessary for the tongue to propel food down the throat. They give your tongue a rough appearance. When they are burned away, your tongue may look smooth, red, and glossy, and you may have issues tasting and swallowing food, especially dry food.

The primary rule in treating a burn on the tongue is to remove the source of heat. You may have to ignore some of the common rules of polite behavior. If you begin to feel a burn on your tongue as you are drinking a hot beverage, for instance, don't keep on chugging it down and burn your throat and esophagus, too. Spit it out. Limit the burn.

The next thing you need to do is to remove the heat itself. The fastest way to do this is by sipping cool water. Water will make better contact with your tongue than ice cubes, although crushed ice, if it happens to be handy, would also work. Don't wait for your refrigerator's icemaker feature to provide you with crushed ice if you burn your tongue. Get a cooling liquid into your mouth immediately.

Then you can treat pain by sucking on ice chips or a popsicle. It's the melt from the ice that relieves pain, not the ice itself. You don't want a super-cold popsicle; you want something that will melt readily.

While your tongue is healing you want to avoid contact with irritating chemicals. Don't eat spicy foods. Avoid bubbly soft drinks and mineral water. Be careful with candy and snacks. They may contain dyes and preservatives to which you are mildly allergic. Ordinarily, you would not notice the irritation, but sometimes red and yellow dyes are just too much for comfort. Peppermint chewing gum and Altoids can also be a problem. Cinnamon can be irritating.

On the other hand, it doesn't usually hurt to eat a small amount of salty foods with each meal. The salt stimulates salivation, which lubricates your tongue. You want to avoid foods with sharp edges, such as crackers and chips (crisps). This isn't a good time for chips and salsa.

This also isn't a good time to use mouthwash or toothpaste that contains the ingredient sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). This sudsing agent provokes an allergic reaction in many people. Ordinarily, you  probably would not notice it, but it can slow down healing in your mouth.

A burn on your tongue isn't minor if it's your tongue that's burned. Don't hesitate to see your physician if you have blistering or swelling that interferes with swallowing. Go to an emergency room at once if your swollen tongue interferes with your ability to breathe.

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