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Alcohol and Health

Does Drinking Alcohol Make Our Tongue Swell? 

May 3, 2024
16 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
May 3, 2024
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
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Not a Slip of the Tongue: The Direct Effects of Alcohol on Tongue Swelling

  • Everyone knows alcohol can cause you to lose your balance or raise your body temperature, but it can also cause lesser-known symptoms such as tongue swelling.
  • Alcohol has short-term and long-term effects on oral health that should not be ignored. 
  • Reframe provides science-based information to help you better understand alcohol and how it affects your health. 

Feeling a bit wobbly, nauseous, and warm are well-known symptoms of intoxication. You also may have heard of some external effects of alcohol, such as tooth stains, tooth decay, and a lingering smell on our breath. But one side effect that may surprise you is a sore or swollen tongue. 

Whether you’ve experienced a swollen tongue from alcohol or other external factors, it’s helpful to understand why it happens and how we can prevent it. All the systems in our body work together for our overall functioning. However, alcohol’s effect on our immune system is the main culprit for a swollen tongue. 

How Alcohol Affects Our Immune System

woman sticking out her tongue with a challenging expression

Our immune system protects us from harmful substances to keep us healthy. Alcohol is a toxic substance that causes short- and long-term effects on our immune system and overall health. It impacts our immune system through two main methods:

  • Gastrointestinal system. Before alcohol gets to our liver to be broken down and eliminated, it goes through our gastrointestinal tract. Our stomach and intestines are chock-full of healthy bacteria that help them function and act as our first line of defense. Alcohol harms the helpful gut bacteria that aid in digestion and work as our immune system. Prolonged alcohol exposure can also damage the outside layer of our GI tract, allowing bacteria to leak into our bloodstream — causing what is known as leaky gut syndrome. The bacteria that leaks out can travel through our bloodstream and affect our immune system through other organs such as our liver.
  • Antibodies. This protective protein is produced by T cells and B cells in our bone marrow. Antibodies detect harmful substances such as bacteria and viruses — an essential aspect of our immune system. They attach to the foreign substances, allowing our immune cells to attack the bacteria and prevent them from spreading. Alcohol decreases the number of T cells and B cells, decreasing the number of antibodies that fight off harmful substances.

Since alcohol is a toxin, it stimulates our immune response and causes inflammation. It is our body’s defense mechanism, working to remove the harmful compounds in alcohol. Remember the red bump that the mosquito bite caused? This is an example of our immune system working to remove the pesky allergens. Unlike mosquitoes, alcohol can cause inflammation through different methods.

Main Causes of Alcohol-Related Tongue Swelling

3 Causes of Alcohol Tongue Swelling

Alcohol is a complex toxic substance that affects our body in many ways. To prevent a sore or swollen tongue, it is first important to determine the cause. Alcohol causes tongue swelling in three different ways:


A common side effect of drinking is dehydration, caused by alcohol’s diuretic properties. Alcohol blocks the release of vasopressin, which signals to our kidneys to hold onto water until it is ready to be eliminated. Since alcohol blocks this signal, liquids reach our bladder more quickly, which explains our extra trips to the bathroom. 

Inflammation of our tongue is just one way that our body communicates that we are dehydrated. When we are not properly hydrated, our body starts to decrease saliva production to preserve body fluids. This can lead to a dry tongue, which can start to feel sore or swollen. Dehydration can also aggravate our papillae, those tiny bumps that cover our tongue and allow us to feel and taste. Our papillae can become inflamed, allowing bacteria to build up on our tongue and cause a white coating known as “white tongue.” 


Another common cause of inflammation is an intolerance or allergy to alcohol. The two are mistakenly interchanged as they can have similar symptoms, but they have notable differences.

  • Alcohol intolerance. Intolerance refers to a metabolic deficiency in the way that our body processes alcohol. It is passed down genetically, and symptoms are typically less severe than an allergy. Symptoms of intolerance include skin flushing, upset stomach, inflammation, low blood pressure, headache, and a stuffy nose.
  • Allergy. An allergy is an immune system response to one or more ingredients in alcohol. The severity of allergic reactions varies from person to person. Less severe reactions may include rashes, itching, swelling, and severe stomach pain. Severe allergic reactions can cause anaphylaxis — trouble breathing, vomiting, dangerously low blood pressure, or swelling. Anaphylaxis is life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention. 

Blood tests can help identify an intolerance or allergy to alcohol. If we suspect that our swollen tongue is caused by an allergy or intolerance, it’s best to consult with a physician for individual medical instruction.


Glossitis is a condition marked by inflammation of the tongue. It is directly correlated with chronic and excessive alcohol consumption. While the exact cause is unclear, it’s theorized that prolonged injury to the tongue, oral disease, infection, and nutritional deficiency can increase the risk of glossitis. Alcohol not only causes tongue swelling by provoking an immune response, but its harmful effects on other systems in our body can add to the risk of developing glossitis. The toxins in alcohol damage the cells in our body and affect nutrient uptake, all of which are speculated to cause glossitis. While inflammation is the primary symptom, several other symptoms could indicate glossitis:   

  • Inflammation 
  • Pain
  • Itching
  • Change in color
  • Change in texture 
  • Trouble swallowing 
  • Difficulty eating/speaking properly

A swollen tongue, no matter the cause, is extremely unpleasant. Let’s explore different methods that can ease our symptoms.

How to Treat Tongue Swelling From Alcohol

There’s no magic pill that can get rid of our swollen or sore tongue, but several remedies can help alleviate uncomfortable symptoms:

  • Ice. Sucking on ice chips or drinking ice water can relieve pain and swelling. Ice constricts our blood vessel, which reduces blood flow to the area.
  • Rinse. Warm salt water helps to dislodge and remove bacteria on our tongue. It has antibacterial properties that also help reduce inflammation. 
  • Brush or scrape. Gentle brushing or scraping helps remove bacteria or other particles that build up around our papillae. 
  • Hydrate. Drinking plenty of water can combat symptoms of dehydration. It also reduces swelling as our body no longer needs to retain as much water.
  • Stop drinking. Continuing to drink alcohol with a swollen tongue can make symptoms worse and potentially lead to long-term damage. 
  • Take medication. Over-the-counter medication can help ease symptoms such as inflammation or pain. However, it’s not a sustainable treatment method as there can be side effects and interactions with alcohol. If our swelling is caused by infection, we may be prescribed antibiotics or antimicrobials to treat the underlying condition.

These methods can help reduce symptoms after the fact. However, addressing the root cause helps us eliminate tongue swelling. 

Combating Alcohol Tongue Swelling

Inflammation is our body sending a signal that something is wrong. Although we can relieve the symptoms of a swollen tongue, preventing it from happening through the following three practices is the best course for our health. 

  1. Identify the cause. Determining the root cause helps us address and avoid a swollen tongue in the future. Keep a record of what symptoms arise and track drinking patterns to determine what could be causing our sore tongue. After identifying the cause of our tongue swelling, we can better address it. For example, if dehydration is the cause, we can be more intentional about staying hydrated by implementing electrolyte supplements. If excessive drinking causes glossitis, we can seek support and take steps to quit or cut back on drinking. 
  2. Cut back or quit drinking. The most effective method to prevent alcohol-related tongue swelling is to cut back on or quit alcohol. Set limits when going out and try alcohol-free drinks to reduce uncomfortable reactions. Support and resources on the Reframe app can help us develop a healthier relationship with alcohol and improve our overall health. 
  3. Limit other triggers. Along with alcohol, other irritants can also cause a swollen tongue. Stay away from spicy foods, tobacco, high-acidity foods, and abrasive mouthwashes and toothpaste. Proper oral hygiene also helps with limiting bacteria and reducing the risk of inflammation.

Drinking Alcohol With a Swollen Tongue

We’ve determined that alcohol can cause tongue swelling, but what if our tongue is already swollen? Drinking with a swollen tongue is not recommended as it can cause additional health complications. When we have a swollen tongue, alcohol can further aggravate symptoms and lead to conditions such as oral thrush, ulcers, leukoplakia, lichens planus, and geographic tongue. 

Along with developing into other oral health conditions, severe inflammation of the tongue can impact our daily functioning. It can make speaking properly difficult and even impact our breathing and swallowing. This can easily turn into a medical emergency if our swollen tongue blocks our airway or causes a choking hazard. According to an analysis completed in 2021, the chance of death by choking is higher than death by plane accident or accidental gun discharge in the United States. Oral health is not always talked about, but it can greatly affect our overall well-being.

Without “Biting Our Tongue” 

As little as it’s talked about, alcohol can undoubtedly cause a swollen tongue. Whether it’s from dehydration, allergy, or excessive drinking, the discomfort of a swollen tongue is no joke. At the end of the day, home remedies and over-the-counter medications can help alleviate symptoms, but cutting back or quitting alcohol is the best way to prevent it from happening at all. Cutting back is an oral health hack!

Summary FAQs

1. Why do I get a sore tongue after drinking alcohol?

There are three main reasons why we may get a sore tongue after drinking. These reasons are dehydration, allergy, and permanent damage to our oral structures from excessive drinking.

2. Can I still drink if my tongue is sore?

It is not recommended to drink with an already sore tongue. Alcohol will aggravate symptoms and potentially lead to permanent effects.

3. How long will it take for my swollen tongue to heal?

Recovery times will vary from person to person. There are methods to alleviate symptoms such as applying ice and taking medication.

4. My tongue feels weird after drinking alcohol. Is this normal?

Tongue swelling is a common experience for some of us who drink alcohol. However, it may be indicative of a health issue and should be taken seriously.

5. How do I prevent alcohol tongue swelling?

Cutting back or quitting alcohol is the most effective method for preventing tongue swelling from alcohol.

6. What is white tongue?

White tongue is the appearance of a coating on the tongue or white patches. It often occurs in conjunction with a sore tongue due to dehydration caused by alcohol.

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