Why Does My Tongue Hurt After I Smoke My Pipe?

Why Does My Tongue Hurt After I Smoke My Pipe?


What is it?

The short answer is the dreaded tongue bite. 

Tongue bite is generally described as a condition caused by pipe smoking that results in a sore, tender or irritated tongue. It’s not limited to the tongue however, as other oral tissues can be effected. Tongue bite has been the bane of pipe smokers since the Columbus expedition brought this practice back to Europe from the New World. The feeling has been described in various ways: “a burning sensation,” “raw tongue,” “like an acid burn,” and so on. The severity of tongue bite can range anywhere from a minor irritation lasting a few hours to a major discomfort lasting for several days. Needless to say, it’s something every pipe smoker has probably experienced, and are always on guard against. 

What causes it?

If you ask ten pipe smokers, “What is the cause of tongue bite,” you’re likely to get ten different answers. I’ve heard everything from bad packing technique to moist tobacco to low quality pipe. All of these answers essentially boil down to one thing, over heating. This over heating can lead to a thermal burn, i.e. the smoke/steam coming into your mouth is too hot, or a chemical burn caused by an imbalance of the smoke pH. The causes of over heating are the same regardless of what’s actually doing the burning, but for the sake of education, lets dive into the two theories 

Thermal Burn

The thermal burn theory is pretty easy to wrap your head around. You puff too fast, the smoke and steam from the tobacco becomes too hot and it scalds the inside of your mouth. This would most commonly happen during initial lighting and relighting. Getting a good initial light, or trying to burn every last shred of tobacco in your bowl can cause a pipe smoker to draw too heavily on the pipe, bringing the full heat of the match or lighter directly into their mouth. This over heating can also be caused when the tobacco is packed too tightly or too loosely. A tight pack interferes with the draw on the pipe, which makes it difficult to keep the pipe lit, which in turn causes you to draw too heavily and over heat the pipe. A bowl with tobacco packed too loosely is also difficult to keep lit because there isn’t enough contact between the tobacco pieces to keep it burning evenly down the bowl, often a tamper is used to remedy this, but if it’s tamped too hard, you’re right back to the tight pack scenario. 

Chemical Burn

The chemical burn theory boils down to an imbalance in the pH of your particular tobacco smoke. When smoke from tobacco has a higher degree of alkalinity, it will produce a painful irritation of the tongue, regardless of its temperature. A principal cause of alkaline smoke is a tobacco containing little or no sugar, such as Burley. Soil chemistry where the tobacco was grown can also influence the pH of the leaf. Virginias and other tobaccos with a high sugar content generally produce an acidic smoke, which is easier on the mucous membranes and tongue. However, if combustion temperature goes too high, then the hydrocarbons (especially sugars) join with oxygen to form water and turn neutral, thus leaving the alkaline components to predominate in the smoke.

This simply means when this type of tongue bite occurs, it is the result of a chemical reaction, it has nothing to do with heat or the temperature of the smoke. Even if you were to freeze the smoke and make it ice cold, the high alkalinity would still produce a chemical irritation.

Well-known master tobacconist, G. L. Pease, points out these details concerning common tobaccos and their pH and sugar levels:

  • Burley and Virginias have a similar pH of 5.4 to 5.8 (although Virginias have significantly more sugar in the form of dextrose, about 0.2% for Burleys and approximately 22% for bright Virginia).
  • Turkish is somewhat more acidic, generally about pH 4.9, while containing only about 12% sugar.
  • The alkalinity of the water soluble ash from Burley, however, is 2-3 times that of Virginia.

Pease also explains that when sugars are burned at higher temperatures, they tend to produce smoke with a higher pH than when burned more slowly. This can cause Virginias to smoke “hot” when puffed furiously, while gentle smoking will liberate the sugars into the water which is produced during combustion of the tobacco. Maintaining a delicate balance between steam generated by the vaporizing water in the tobacco and the water vapour produced as a byproduct of normal combustion is very important to getting a sweet, cool smoke. If the tobacco is too wet, too much steam is generated, dilluting the “sweetness” of the smoke, and resulting in caloric heat. If the tobacco is too dry, the smoker may tend to smoke it hot, creating an alkaline smoke from the burning of sugars.

Tobaccos that are flue-cured, such as Virginias, or those exposed to a high heat soon after the leaf is removed from the plant, will have a high sugar content. This is because metabolic processes within the leaf, and microorganisms that live there, are killed by the heat before the sugar is consumed.

Sun-cured or air-cured tobaccos, on the other hand, have a low sugar content, because most of the sugar is either metabolized within the leaf itself or consumed by microorganisms between the time the leaf was removed from the plant and the end of the initial curing process.

In light of this, one would expect Virginias and other heat-cured tobaccos to be gentle on the tongue, and Burley and other slowly-cured tobaccos to be harsh on the tongue. But this is not necessarily the case. When the leaf burns in your pipe, the higher the combustion temperature, the more complete the combustion, and the more hydrogen ions combine with oxygen to form neutral water. Put differently, the higher the burn temperature, the more alkaline the smoke, as the acidic hydrogen is used to form neutral water and the alkaline components dominate.

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. All of this can be further modified if the blender has applied extra sugar or honey or cased the tobacco with rum, for example. These additives can tilt the balance of the tobacco toward the acidic pH.

How to avoid it?

I realize that this is a lot of information to take in, and some find it to be a bit overwhelming. The simple fact is that tongue bite is painful, and all pipe smokers try to avoid it. Here are some simple tips to prevent this annoying little affliction:

  • Practice proper smoking technique. This is absolutely essential. Improper technique can easily lead to some of the most common forms of tongue bite. For this reason it is vital to learn to take slow, gentle sips instead of long, heavy draws. Don’t puff too rapidly, which increases combustion temperature leading to chemical burn. Be careful when lighting or relighting so that you don’t draw the flame/heat directly into your mouth. Learn to properly fill your bowl: Packing too tight will cause a difficult draw making you inhale too heavily. Packing too loosely will allow excessive airflow, which may cause the tobacco to burn hot. Learn when and how to tamp to keep your pipe lit without excessive or forceful puffing. I realize these suggestions don’t actually tell you “how” to do these things; that information is for another article. But take the time to learn and exercise diligence. You will be greatly rewarded for your effort and patience.
  • Avoid tobaccos with high alkalinity. Smoke tobaccos rich in sugar. (See the general information above for ideas about which tobaccos contain more natural sugar and those with less alkalinity.) If you enjoy high alkaline tobaccos, try blending them with others to reduce the chemical burn issues. 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. But 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. Some consider it a noble thing to smoke a pipe from start to finish on one or two lights, but that is an unnecessary encumberance. There is absolutely no shame in relighting. If your pipe starts to go out, let it, and then relight. Nothing promotes a hot, alkaline smoke faster than trying to “rekindle” an ember which is in its death throes. As G. L. Pease said, “Cast thy pride to the winds, and call upon Promethius whenever needed to enflame thy sweet smoke yet again!”
  • 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. Discarding a small amount of unburned tobacco may seem like a crime, but frying your tongue so you can’t enjoy smoking at all is much worse.
  • Enjoy a cool or room temperature beverage with your pipe.
  • Avoid eating or drinking items that tend to exacerbate tongue bite. The specific list of items will vary from person to person due to individual tolerances, unique body chemistry, allergies, etc. But many report problems from salty foods and carbonated beverages. Also avoid ice cold drinks since the contrast in temperatures can make the tongue more sensitive to irritation.
  • 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 (not necessarily during the smoke, but as a regular routine of oral hygiene). Many report that these products are highly effective in preventing and treating tongue bite.

In Summary

There is probably more that could be said about this condition, and as more information comes to light, we may better equip ourselves against it. Tongue bite is indeed a menace to pipe smoking society, but it’s all a part of the learning process and everyone goes through it. Pipe smoking is an incredibly worth while pass time practiced by some of the most distinguished men and women of western civilization, and I guarantee every one of them experience tongue bite as well. I hope you continue on in your tobacco journey, and never cease to explore the pleasures of this gentle art.

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