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What to Expect from a Tongue Biopsy

As part of a complete dental exam, your dental professional checks the soft tissues and mucous membranes in your mouth — including your tongue — for abnormalities or signs of oral cancer.

If you have an abnormal growth or lesion – not caused by a mouth infection or tongue trauma – you'll most likely get a referral to an oral surgeon for a tongue biopsy.

You might wonder what's involved before, during, and after such a biopsy. After all, your tongue is dear to you in eating, talking, and making silly faces. Learn all you need to know about a tongue biopsy, starting with what exactly it is.

What's a Tongue Biopsy, and How Should I Prepare for It?

Like any biopsy, this minor out-patient surgery provides a specialist with a tissue sample for microscopic examination to determine the type of cells causing the abnormality.

Depending on the nature of the abnormality, you'll know in advance the type of tongue biopsy you'll undergo so you can prepare yourself mentally and physically. It is typically one of two types.

Needle Biopsy: You'll receive a local anesthetic or another numbing agent. Your oral surgeon will remove a tiny section of tongue tissue with a needle. There's no preparation needed for this procedure.

Surgical Biopsy: Again, depending upon the abnormality, your oral surgeon will remove just a sliver or a larger area of your tongue tissue. You'll most likely require general anesthesia to put you to sleep, so you feel no tongue biopsy pain.

You'll get special instructions for general anesthetic, including abstaining from eating or drinking for several hours before the biopsy.

What Happens During and After a Tongue Biopsy?

As noted, you'll receive the appropriate anesthesia for your type of tongue biopsy. The best part: Expect the entire procedure to last 15-30 minutes.

Local anesthesia or another numbing agent: Because the tongue is a very sensitive organ, there's a possibility you might feel the needle prick even with the anesthetic. (Please don't worry about it, though.) Post-procedure, until the numbness wears off, avoid eating and talking, so you don't bite your tongue.

General Anesthesia: You'll be "put under" for pain-free slumber. If undergoing a surgical biopsy, you might need sutures – such as dissolvable stitches – to close the incision. These usually dissolve in 10-14 days.

Before you leave your oral surgeon's office, schedule a follow-up visit for a biopsy area check-up a week or two after the procedure. You can also discuss the biopsy results at that time.

Once the anesthesia wears off, expect little to no pain. However, if you need pain relief, usually over-the-counter medicine does the trick.

Post-tongue biopsy recovery might also include slight swelling or discomfort in the biopsy area, but it should subside within a few days. Bleeding should be minimal, especially if sutured. But if the area continues to bleed or ooze, applying pressure with a washcloth, gauze, or cotton swab for 10 minutes should stop the bleeding.

You'll be able to resume eating, brushing, and flossing normally on the same day as the procedure. Just take care not to bite or irritate the area. Most likely, you'll be able to return to work or school the next day.

While you're out living life, a pathologist will examine your tissue sample in a lab.

Identifying a tongue abnormality on time is just one more reason for routine dental visits. Your dental professionals might be able to notice slight changes on your tongue, as well as recognize more obvious conditions. By referring you for a tongue biopsy early enough, you might be able to rule out dysplasia (benign but premalignant changes on your tongue) or early oral cancer.

No one likes dental or medical surprises, so knowing what to expect pre-op, during the tongue biopsy, and post-op can help put your mind at ease.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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