Illustration for article titled Burning Mouth Syndrome Is Real, But We Don’t Know Why

The symptoms of Burning Mouth Syndrome are pretty much summed up by the name. The cause is still a mystery. So is the fact that the syndrome stops whenever you fall asleep.


Imagine the pain in your lips, tongue, and gums just after you’ve swallowed a mouthful of scalding coffee. Now imagine it lasting for years. That’s how it feels to have Burning Mouth Syndrome. Some patients get nasty little twists. They not only feel a painful burn, but also tastes something metallic. Very unlucky ones also get a “crawling sensation” in their mouths. They have a lot of time to describe their symptoms, because those symptoms can also last for years. There isn’t really anything that can alleviate the pain.

Well, except one thing—sleep. Patients get a brief respite from pain when they wake up every morning. They spend a little while free from the burning, and then it creeps back. Throughout the day the pain, the taste, and the crawling gets worse. It’s at its worst at night, but should the sufferer eventually get to sleep, they can look forward to a short absence of pain again the next morning.


There’s no proven cause for Burning Mouth Syndrome. It tends to strike menopausal women (who just can’t catch a break), but can affect nearly anyone. The treatment consists of medications used to treat anxiety and depression, not because anxiety or depression are the cause of the disorder (although they can be the result) but because extremely low doses of such medications depress nerve activity. Burning Mouth Syndrome, in the absence of infection, happens when your nerves turn against you, insisting that something painful is happening to you, even when nothing’s wrong. Luckily, most people get better in a few weeks. The unlucky few who don’t see relatively quick improvement have to settle in. The average course of long-term Burning Mouth Syndrome is anywhere from six to seven years.

Image: Lisa Brewster

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