Because no food is worth a nasty mouth burn — even pizza.
Let’s face it: Sometimes you just can’t wait for that piping-hot pizza or morning coffee to cool down.
But we all know what happens when that impatience gets the best of us: Your mouth and tongue end up taking the heat.
We’ve all been there. Maybe you were deceived by the cool whipped cream topping on a boiling cup of hot cocoa, or you were too drunk to realize how hot the cheese was on that late-night slice of pizza. Maybe, like so many of us in the mornings, you were just so caffeine-deprived that you absolutely couldn’t wait to take a sip of your coffee — only to have it sear your tongue like a hot knife. No matter how you burn your tongue or mouth, it always sucks.
But what actually happens when you burn your mouth or tongue, and what’s the best way to help it heal?
We reached out to two mouth-burn experts to find out: Dr. Alison Bruce, dermatologist at The Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, and Dr. Alice Boghosian, spokesperson for the American Dental Association and a dentist in Park Ridge, Illinois.
Quick note: For the purpose of this article, we’re talking about burns on your mouth and tongue from hot foods or drinks like soup, cocoa, pizza, etc. We are not referring to the treatment of third-degree mouth burns from fires or other traumatic events. You definitely want to see a doctor for those.
Super-hot foods and drinks can cause a first-degree burn that damages the delicate membrane lining your mouth.
“Mouth burns are usually first-degree burns, and sometimes second-degree but it’s less common,” says Bruce. The burn damages cells in the outermost layer of skin (the epithelium) on your tongue, the roof of your mouth, or the insides of your cheeks, Bruce tells BuzzFeed Health. It basically has the same effect as a burn anywhere else on the skin, but the tissue in your mouth and on your tongue is much more delicate.
“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,” Bruce says. This means it’s easier to burn the inside of your mouth and it’s a lot more painful. And it explains why eating hot pizza can totally singe the roof of your mouth, while touching or holding hot pizza won’t really burn your fingers.
“Food and drink is really only hot enough to cause a first degree-burn in the superficial layer of skin, which causes redness, pain, and inflammation,” says Bruce. But if the burn is more severe and goes deeper into the epidermis, then it can blister and the tissue will peel or slough off.
But don’t panic — the pain and swelling are normal. “It’s your body’s natural inflammatory response, which sends a rush of blood and fluids to a wound to help it heal, and this can stretch the skin so it’s more uncomfortable — but the hurt means healing,” Boghosian tells BuzzFeed Health. If you’re in a lot of pain, the experts suggest taking ibuprofen or acetaminophen, or trying an over-the-counter numbing gel or topical anesthetic.
You generally don’t need to seek medical attention for a mouth burn from hot foods or drinks, the experts say — although you probably should if the burn happens to an infant or toddler. That said, if you’re in extreme pain or having trouble breathing, you might want to see a doctor, but this is not normal.
The first thing you should do is swish with cold water to reduce heat in your skin and decrease swelling.
It might seem reasonable to pop an entire ice cube in your mouth, but be careful. Remember that scene in A Christmas Story where that kid licks a frozen flagpole and his tongue gets stuck? Something similar can happen here. “You probably shouldn’t pop a whole ice cube directly in your mouth because it might stick to the burned area and damage the skin more,” Boghosian says.
Instead, after you burn your mouth, Boghosian says you should swish with very cold water or suck on melted ice chips for five to ten minutes. You can also drink cold milk, she says, which coats and soothes the burned skin. “The cold liquid in your mouth will help remove some of the immediate heat in the burned tissue in the burned area and decrease inflammation,” says Bruce.
In the following days you should stick to a soft, bland diet and keep your mouth clean.
There’s no magic cure to make a burn heal faster, but there are things you should avoid that can make it worse. According to the experts, this includes very hot food (obviously); acidic or spicy food, which can increase irritation; and crunchy foods like chips, which can scratch and damage the fragile, burned skin. Stick to foods like yogurt, oatmeal, or mashed potatoes, Bruce says.
Just like after you get your wisdom teeth out, after a burn you’ll want to keep your mouth clean. “Your mouth is naturally filled with bacteria and most of it is harmless, but you still want to keep your burn very clean to avoid an infection,” Bruce says. So don’t touch, poke, or pick at the burn with your germy fingers.
You should brush your teeth — but be gentle or use a soft toothbrush — and do a saltwater rinse two to three times a day. The latter will kill bacteria and it’ll be more soothing than mouthwash. A saltwater rinse is just 1 cup of warm water with ½ teaspoon of table salt, Bruce says. And as we said before, stick to over-the-counter pain meds or numbing gels to manage the pain.
Fortunately, the skin in your mouth grows super-fast — so you should be healed in about a week or so.
The bad news: Burns take time to heal. In the mouth, the burned cells will die and get replaced with new tissue, Bruce says. The good news: Cell turnover (the rate at which skin produces new cells) in the mouth is much faster than it is anywhere else on the body, Bruce says, so mouth wounds heal faster.
In two to three days you’ll have healed enough to be relieved from the pain, Boghosian says. In about a week, the wound should be gone. That said, the time it takes for a burn to heal depends on how severe it is and the size of the burned area. It’s unusual for a burn from hot foods or drinks to cause serious issues, says Bruce, but take note of any bumps in the healing process.
If the burn isn’t healing after a week or the pain gets worse after a few days, you might want to call your dentist or doctor, Boghosian says. If it’s a child who was burned, take them to a pediatrician. “Your burn might require a little more attention, or there might be something else going on that a doctor needs to check out,” Boghosian says.
And no, burning your tongue on hot food or drinks won’t permanently kill your taste buds or anything.
Even though a burn causes the skin cells in your mouth and tongue to “die off,” they still grow back, and there isn’t any permanent damage. You might’ve heard that a hot cocoa tongue burn will kill your taste buds, but the experts say that’s a myth.
“It can be hard to taste anything right after you burn your tongue because you’ve damaged the mucosal surface where your taste buds are, but it’s just temporary,” Bruce says. Your taste buds will regenerate and your sense of taste will normalize within several days to a week.
Bottom line: Just wait a few damn minutes for your food or drink to cool down enough.
Prevention is always easier, the experts say — meaning the real key is to avoid extremely hot foods. And sure, some people can withstand higher temperatures than others, but it’s much safer to be mindful than it is to be overconfident about your ability to handle heat.
So maybe wait until your food is done bubbling or steaming, cut your food into small bites so it cools down faster, blow cool air onto your forkful of hot food, or sit patiently until you think it’s the right temperature to eat. Besides, food that isn’t too hot to eat is much more enjoyable anyways, right? Just think about Goldilocks and her porridge. But also don’t forget about your food or drink until it’s too cold, either.