What is tongue bite? What causes tongue bite? What can be done to prevent or relieve tongue bite?
Tongue bite is a condition caused by pipe smoking that results in a sore, tender, irritated tongue. The effects of tongue bite range from a minor irritation to a major discomfort. Sometimes the symptoms last just a few hours; other times they can last for days.
Tongue bite generally results from either a chemical burn or heat scald (or both). The vast majority of tongue bite is a chemical burn produced by caustic elements in the smoke. In other words, pipe smoke that contains higher levels of alkalinity will produce painful irritations of the tongue and oral membranes. In general, Burley, Maryland, and other air-cured tobaccos tend to produce a more alkaline smoke, which can lead to chemical bite. Virginias, Perique, and fire-cured tobaccos provide a more acidic smoke, which is milder on the tongue.
Beyond the natural pH qualities of the leaf itself, sugar content and smoking technique are major factors in tongue bite. For example, when tobacco burns in your pipe, the higher the combustion temperature, the more alkaline the smoke will be. Also, sugar in tobacco produces acidity and a milder smoke.
The irony, of course, is that tobaccos rich in sugar tend to burn easily, fast, and hot, while those low in sugar tend to burn slower and cooler. If you smoke a sugar-rich Virginia hot, instead of pleasant acidic smoke, you will experience caustic alkaline smoke that bites with a vengeance. And if you smoke Burley, which is naturally higher alkaline, in a gentle, cool manner, you will be rewarded with an acidic smoke that will comfort your tongue.
In additional to chemical burns, heat can also be irritating to sensitive oral membranes. If the temperatures of combustion while smoking a pipe get too high, it is feasible that discomfort or pain could result. This is probably most common during the lighting or relighting and/or trying to burn the tobacco all the way to the very bottom of the bowl. In these instances, the smoker may be more prone to draw forcefully on the pipe, which results in the heat from the match or lighter being pulled directly into the mouth. This could result in a heat scald that would definitely "bite" the tongue.
Regardless of the various causes, tongue bite is painful, and all pipe smokers want to avoid it. Here are some practical suggestions to help prevent and treat tongue bite:
- Acquire proper smoking technique. Learn to take slow, gentle sips instead of long, heavy draws. Don't puff too rapidly, which increases combustion temperature leading to chemical burn.
- Avoid tobaccos with high alkalinity. Smoke tobaccos rich in sugar. Also, if a particular tobacco irritates your tongue more than others, don't smoke it! With the rich variety of tobaccos available, there's no reason to smoke something that doesn't sit well with you.
- Pay attention to the moisture content of your tobacco. If too dry, it is very easy to drive the combustion temperature too high. If the tobacco is too moist, you will automatically compensate for the difficulty in making moist tobacco burn by puffing more strongly, and this too can easily drive the temperature of combustion too high, and result in very alkaline smoke.
- Don't worry about your pipe going out. If your pipe starts to go out, let it go, and relight.
- Don't insist on smoking your pipe all the way to the bottom of the bowl. Relighting at the bottom can cause a scald by drawing the heat from the flame directly into the mouth.
- Enjoy a cool or room temperature beverage with your pipe.
- Avoid eating or drinking items that tend to exacerbate tongue bite. Things such as salty foods and carbonated beverages seem to be a problem for many.
- After smoking, drink a glass of milk. Some suggest this helps to soothe an irritated tongue.
- Use a product such as Biotene mouthwash or Aloe Vera juice to regularly rinse your mouth. Many report that these products are highly effective in preventing and treating tongue bite.