What is burning mouth syndrome?

Burning mouth syndrome (BMS), also known as glossodynia, is a relatively rare condition that causes a burning sensation in your mouth with no obvious cause. This feeling is often compared to taking a large gulp of hot soup or coffee; it may also feel boiling, scorching, dry, tingling, rough/sandy, or stinging. BMS affects 2% of the general population; women are seven times more likely to have BMS than men. Of the women diagnosed, post-menopausal women are more likely to be diagnosed with BMS.  

Symptoms of burning mouth syndrome

The burning mouth sensation is typically felt on the tip, sides, and/or top of the tongue, but can also occur on the roof of the mouth, and inside the area of the lips. You may also experience the sensation on your gums and/or inside of your cheeks. The burning can be in one or many of these areas at the same time, and can start suddenly or increase in intensity over time. The sensation may be constant or intermittent (come and go).  

BMS can be quite uncomfortable and disturbing, but it is a benign condition- it does not endanger your health. The feeling is usually chronic, lasting over a period of weeks, months, or longer. BMS might follow a pattern for you- for example, it might start mildly in the morning, increasing in intensity during the day. 

  • Other symptoms may include:  
  • Dry mouth, feeling of thirst 
  • Changes in taste- bitter or metallic taste in your mouth 
  • Numbness in your mouth 
  • People with BMS sometimes also report headache, fatigue, pain in other parts of the body, tinnitus (noise or ringing in the ears), and anxiety. 

Causes of burning mouth syndrome

There may or may not be an underlying cause for your BMS. In attempting to get a diagnosis and treatment to relieve BMS, many people visit their dentist, general practitioner, dermatologist, ENT and other medical specialists. Your doctor will likely attempt to rule out underlying conditions such as: 

  • Vitamin deficiency, particularly vitamin B 
  • Anemia 
  • Type 2 diabetes 
  • Medication side effects 
  • Allergies 
  • Oral yeast infection (thrush) 
  • Reflux 
  • Dental issues 

How is burning mouth syndrome diagnosed?

In the absence of an underlying cause, research suggests that BMS can be a neuropathic pain syndrome, caused by malfunctioning nerves and may be due to injury of the trigeminal nerve, or nerve fibers in the tongue. Psychiatric disorders such as depression and PTSD may be linked to BMS. TMD, chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia may be contributing factors. 

Your doctor will examine you and listen to your explanation of your symptoms and history. You may have tests such as blood work, oral cultures, allergy testing or tissue biopsy to rule out underlying conditions. Your doctor may refer you to a dental expert if BMS is diagnosed. 

Treatment for burning mouth syndrome

Treatment for BMS aims to lessen your symptoms. From 50% to 66% of people with BMS will experience some degree of improvement with treatment over a few weeks or months. You may have to try a number of therapies to find the best one or combination for you. Cognitive behavior interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy can be successful at helping you minimize your discomfort with BMS. There are also at-home or homeopathic treatments you may try- remember to check with your doctor before you do. 

Medications for burning mouth syndrome

  • topical therapies, such as lidocaine gel or capsaicin cream 

Avoid triggers

You may determine if certain foods or products trigger your BMS. If so, you can minimize or eliminate your exposure to them. Some common BMS triggers are:

  • spicy foods
  • hot food
  • acidic food
  • tobacco
  • mouthwash containing alcohol
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