Leathertongue. It sounds like the name of a Bond villain or a nickname for a long-winded politician. But if you’ve been a pipe smoker for any length of time, you know what leathertongue is and will go to extremes to avoid or treat it. Simply put, leathertongue is the sensation you feel in your mouth and on your tongue after a particularly rigorous smoking session.
The causes of leathertongue can be myriad. The onset will occur following: smoking too much, smoking too fast, packing a pipe too tightly or loosely, smoking tobacco that’s too dry or too moist or smoking tobaccos that naturally tend to burn hot (like high-sugar Virginias).
One of the nasty aspects of this particular “ailment” is that it sneaks up on you. You may not even realize you have it until something else happens, like eating or drinking. My own story about this scourge of pipe smokers everywhere goes back to my first Chicagoland Pipe Show in 2006, which was before the Illinois indoor smoking ban. I had been at other pipe shows and sat at my table, talking to people and smoking, but at most of them the traffic was slow enough that I paid attention to how much I was puffing. At Chicago, there were so many people coming to our table that I was smoking incessantly and I really wasn’t taking notice.
Now, Chicago is unique in many ways, but one of them is that, for an exhibitor, it can extend to four days. On Friday, I was registering for a table for the pre-show at 6:30 a.m. with a pipe in my mouth, and it continued through the day until the afternoon meetings and seminars, when I still had my pipe stoked up and I kept it going during the evening while hanging out and meeting people. Saturday and Sunday were insane with all of the people milling around, and my briars were my constant companions. The BS sessions lasted until the wee small hours of the morning, and (guess what?) I was smoking most of the time.
Monday is called the post-show, and this is when retailers look to snap up estate pipes or to get pieces that carvers haven’t sold. Of course, while wandering around, I was smoking. Shortly after the post-show was over, I was on my way to Midway Airport, with about a three-and-a-half hour gap until my flight left. I was very hungry and decided to grab a bite to eat, so I went to a Chinese restaurant in the concourse to have a meal. Now here is where the fun begins, ladies and gentlemen, because the idiot tobacco blender chose to order (are you ready?)…Kung Pao Chicken and a soda. I’ll bet that you can predict what happened next. I took a bite of the chicken, and I felt like Roger Rabbit in the bar scene after he tossed back the bourbon. The fire in my mouth was excruciating, almost bringing me to tears, so I did what you would expect; I took a big swig of the soda. Once again, my decision-making was radically flawed as the carbonation only created round two of pain.
Shortly thereafter, I was with a good friends who had accompanied me to the Newark Pipe Show. He is a big fan of our Hearth & Home Armada, which is a very cool smoking Latakia blend. When we set up for the show, he caught a whiff of Louisiana Red, a rather sweet and tangy Virginia/Perique blend. Because the aroma appealed to him, he wanted to give it a try. When the syrupy flavor hit him, his eyes almost popped out of his head. He was so enamored of the taste that he must have smoked four bowls in a row, but I hadn’t noticed. When the show was over, he couldn’t believe how sore his tongue was, but that’s a common result of 1) smoking too much, 2) smoking too fast and 3) the extra heat produced by high sugar content Virginias.
Since then, I’ve done a little studying about this phenomenon, and here are my findings. Obviously, the easiest way to avoid leathertongue is to not get it in the first place, so if you know that you’re smoking too much, stop, dammit! If you’re having this problem, but you’re not smoking all that much, you need to find the cause of burning your tongue. You can get excessive heat if you pack a pipe too tightly as it will require harder, more frequent puffing to keep it going. If you pack too loosely, you’ll have a similar problem because the extra airflow will cause the tobacco to get hot. Overly dry tobacco will burn too fast, and, as a result will be hotter. For the same reason as packing too tightly, moist tobacco can cause heat issues as well. Additionally, tobacco with too much moisture produces steam, which will burn your tongue more readily than smoke.
Having something cool to sip on while smoking will help, to some degree. I’m sure that some of the benefit comes from having something relatively cold passing over your tongue, but I’m willing to bet that part of it comes from the fact that taking a drink occasionally will slow down the pace of your smoking.
Assuming that the above steps aren’t helping, you’ll want to know what to do to minimize the discomfort and injury of scorching your mouth. One thing to try is a non-alcohoI based mouthwash, like Biotene or Crest ProHealth. In fact, until the pain subsides, try to avoid alcohol (although wine doesn’t seem to cause too many problems) and carbonated beverages (those bubbles can really get you). Milk, milk shakes, egg nog and similar drinks can help because they coat the tongue with fat which acts like a insulator.
Once you’re on the road to recovery, there’s something you can do to expedite your recovery, but don’t do this until the pain has become mild discomfort or just puffiness- rinse your mouth with salt water. This is a very common thing to do for canker sores and other minor damage to the mucus membranes of the mouth as the salt dries out the injured area and accelerates healing.
With a little effort and some practice, it should be possible to virtually eliminate the discomfort caused by leathertongue. If you can’t seem to get past it, you can always call me to ask for some help…that is, if your mouth isn’t too sore to talk.