Slurred Speech Symptoms
If a person begins to have trouble speaking — if the words are slow or garbled and run together so that they are difficult to understand — this is slurred speech. There are plenty of jokes about it and it's seen as an almost universal sign of drunkenness, which can be one cause.
Most often, though, this sort of speech difficulty has a neurologic or other physical cause. Unless clearly caused by temporary exhaustion or alcohol intoxication, it should be seen immediately by a medical provider. Slurred speech is also called dysarthria [1,2].
Common characteristics of slurred speech are
Your slurred speech can likely be described by:
- Slow, garbled, and difficult to understand
- Too fast and therefore unclear
- Inappropriately loud, or too soft to hear
- Alternating in quality: It may change between being too fast and too slow, or too soft and too loud.
- Loss of muscle control: There may be loss of control of the muscles of the lips, tongue, and face, and it may happen on only one side of the face.
Duration of symptoms
Your slurred speech symptoms may be temporary or more persistent depending on the cause.
- Temporary: Some types of dysarthria are temporary and will fade, especially with speech therapy.
- Persistent: Other types cannot be cured but can be managed with appropriate treatment and speech therapy.
Is slurred speech serious?
The severity of your slurred speech symptoms is ultimately dependent on the cause.
- Not serious: Speech may become mildly slurred due to exhaustion, hypothermia, or alcohol intoxication, but will clear up when the underlying cause clears up.
- Moderately serious: The psychological aspects of slurred or difficult speech can cause depression, social isolation, and difficulty working or going to school.
- Serious: If the slurred speech is caused by a sudden loss of control on one side of the body, or by sudden swelling of the lips, tongue, and throat, these are life-threatening emergencies and must be treated immediately.
Slurred Speech Causes
The brain requires a normal blood supply in order to function. Anything that interferes with this blood supply impact the brain and disrupt actions such as speech .
- Blockage, leaking, or rupture of a blood vessel in the brain: It may be minor and seem to resolve on its own within 24 hours but is actually a very serious warning signal, or it may be very debilitating and require immediate medical attention.
- Conditions which damage the blood vessels over time: Such as high blood pressure or chronic high blood sugar
- Heart attack: This severely disrupts normal circulation of blood and also causes pain, exhaustion, and shortness of breath, all of which interfere with normal speech.
- Physical damage to the brain: This disrupts its structure and workings. Examples include traumatic brain injury or brain tumors, which crowd and displace normal brain tissue.
- Hypothermia: Or a severe drop in body temperature (e.g. below 95 degrees Fahrenheit/35 degrees Celsius) slows the circulation and the brain's functioning .
- Severe exhaustion: This slows the thinking as the brain prepares for sleep.
These cause gradual and progressive loss of coordination between nerves and muscles, making speech increasingly difficult .
This means that the muscles used for speech are weak or uncontrollable.
- Conditions causing facial paralysis
- Overall weakness of the tongue and/or throat muscles
Abnormal growths or injury to voice apparatus
The voice apparatus or mechanism of speech can be impaired due to the following.
- Abnormal growths on, or damage to, the vocal cords or throat: This can leave the voice sounding very different and sometimes hard to understand.
- Damaged teeth
- Swollen tongue or throat: This can be due to injury or allergy.
Medications, alcohol, supplements, and drugs
Medications, supplements, alcohol intoxication and recreational drugs can slow the thought processes and interfere with the motor control needed for clear speech .
Mental health conditions
The following mental health conditions can result in slurred speech.
- Severe depression: This can make it hard to find the energy to speak, especially if the person is also medicated.
- Severe anxiety and panic: This can make it very difficult to speak.
Rare and unusual causes
More unusual causes, such as the following, can result in slurred speech.
- An excess buildup of copper in the tissues 
- Progressive weakness of the muscles and loss of muscle mass
- Brain damage from birth: Damage to the brain may be caused by malformation or oxygen deprivation at birth.
7 Possible Slurred Speech Conditions
The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced slurred speech. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
Stroke or tia (transient ischemic attack)
Transient ischemic attack, or TIA, is sometimes called a "mini stroke" or a "warning stroke." Any stroke means that blood flow somewhere in the brain has been blocked by a clot.
Risk factors include smoking, obesity, and cardiovascular disease, though anyone can experience a TIA.
Symptoms are "transient," meaning they come and go within minutes because the clot dissolves or moves on its own. Stroke symptoms include weakness, numbness, and paralysis on one side of the face and/or body; slurred speech; abnormal vision; and sudden, severe headache.
A TIA does not cause permanent damage because it is over quickly. However, the patient must get treatment because a TIA is a warning that a more damaging stroke is likely to occur. Take the patient to the emergency room or call 9-1-1.
Diagnosis is made through patient history; physical examination; CT scan or MRI; and electrocardiogram.
Treatment includes anticoagulant medication to prevent further clots. Surgery to clear some of the arteries may also be recommended.
Top Symptoms: dizziness, leg numbness, arm numbness, new headache, stiff neck
Symptoms that never occur with stroke or tia (transient ischemic attack): bilateral weakness
Urgency: Emergency medical service
Brain tumor or mass
In medical terms, "mass" and "tumor" mean the same thing: the unexplained, out-of-place growth of tissue anywhere in the body, including the brain.
The cause of any sort of brain tumor is unknown. Some originate in the brain, while others spread from cancers growing in other parts of the body.
Symptoms may include increasing headaches; nausea and vomiting; blurred or double vision; loss of sensation in an arm or leg; loss of balance; confusion; speech difficulties; or seizures.
If symptoms persist, it is important to see a medical provider so that any treatment can begin as soon as possible.
Diagnosis is made through neurological examination, CT scan, and/or MRI.
If the mass or tumor is found to be benign, that means it is not cancer and not harmful. It may or may not be treated.
If it is malignant, that means it is cancer and must be treated. This will involve some combination of surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy, followed by specialized therapy to help with recovery.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, headache, nausea, loss of appetite, irritability
Symptoms that always occur with brain tumor or mass: focal neurological symptoms
Urgency: In-person visit
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (als)
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is also called ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease named after the Hall of Fame baseball player whose career ended when he developed ALS. It is a degenerative disease that destroys nerve cells, which eventually leads to loss of control over muscle function. The cause of ALS is not known.
Symptoms include weakness; difficulty with speaking, swallowing, walking, or using the hands; and muscle cramps. It does not affect the senses or a person's mental ability.
ALS is progressive, meaning it worsens over time. There is no cure, but supportive care can keep the patient more comfortable and improve quality of life. Treatment involves medications to both slow the progression of the disease and ease the symptoms; respiratory therapy; physical therapy; occupational therapy; and psychological support.
Rarity: Ultra rare
Top Symptoms: shortness of breath, decreased exercise tolerance, difficulty concentrating, difficulty walking, hoarse voice
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Acute disseminated encephalomyelitis
Inflammation of the nervous system, typically due to your body's own immune system, can strip the protective layering of the nervous system's biggest nerves, causing neurologic changes.
Rarity: Ultra rare
Top Symptoms: fatigue, nausea or vomiting, being severely ill, new headache, fever
Symptoms that always occur with acute disseminated encephalomyelitis: being severely ill
Urgency: Hospital emergency room
Low blood sodium
Hyponatremia means there is too little sodium in the blood to maintain normal blood pressure and fluid balance. Sodium is a mineral provided by ordinary table salt (sodium chloride) in the diet.
Hyponatremia is caused by anything creating an imbalance of water and minerals in the body:
- Chronic vomiting or diarrhea.
- Diuretics or other medications which cause increased urination or sweating.
- Drinking too much water, especially while sweating during heavy exercise.
Any illness causing fluid retention.
- Low levels of adrenal gland or thyroid hormones.
- The party drug Ecstasy, which can cause fatal hyponatremia.
Symptoms include nausea and vomiting; mental confusion; headache; extreme fatigue; and muscle cramps.
Untreated, hyponatremia can lead to brain swelling, seizures, and coma, and can be a life-threatening medical emergency.
Diagnosis is made through blood and urine tests. Treatment is done with hospitalization and IV sodium. Medications to manage sodium levels may be prescribed.
Prevention consists of treatment for any underlying medical conditions. During exercise, drink a moderate amount of water and consider using sports beverages (which contain minerals) instead.
Rarity: Ultra rare
Top Symptoms: fatigue, headache, nausea, loss of appetite, dizziness
Urgency: In-person visit
A brain abscess is a collection of inflammatory and infected material in the brain. Bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites are all capable of causing infections that may lead to brain abscesses.
Brain abscesses will usually cause severe headaches and fever. They may also cause other symptoms like neck stiffness, nausea, vomiting, double vision, confusion, weakness, lethargy, seizures, and other mental changes.
Brain abscesses can be very dangerous and require prompt evaluation and treatment. Treatments for brain abscesses vary based on the size, location, and cause of the abscess, but will usually require hospitalization for some combination of antimicrobial medications and surgical removal of the infection.
Rarity: Ultra rare
Top Symptoms: headache, being severely ill, nausea or vomiting, new headache, fever
Symptoms that always occur with brain abscess: being severely ill
Urgency: Emergency medical service
Tertiary phase of syphilis infection
Syphilis is a common sexually trasmitted infection (STI). Late phase, or tertiary, syphilis is uncommon, as it occurs years to decades after initial exposure to the infection. It is the most progressed and serious stage of the disease. Late phase syphilis infection can lead to loss of function of multiple organ systems, especially the nervous system, the heart and blood vessels, and the liver.
Top Symptoms: joint pain, fatigue, irritability, numbness or tingling sensations in skin, dizziness
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Slurred Speech Treatments and Relief
When it is an emergency
Seek immediate slurred speech treatment in the emergency room or call 911 if the person is also experiencing:
- Severe headache: Along with weakness and loss of use of part or all of one side of the body. These symptoms may indicate a stroke in progress .
- Sudden swelling of the face, tongue, and throat along with difficulty breathing: These may be caused by a life-threatening allergy.
When to see a doctor
If your slurred speech worsens or persists, especially if the cause is not obvious, you should consult a physician. Together you can discover the cause, the best course of treatment, as well as the following.
- Medication list/history: You can discuss all of the medications and supplements you are taking to see if substitutions or adjustments can be made that might help.
- Speech therapy: You can discuss benefits of speech therapy and possibly be referred to a specialist.
- Address mental health: You can discuss psychological issues such as depression and social isolation, with possible referral to a mental health professional for help in coping with everyday life.
FAQs About Slurred Speech
Here are some frequently asked questions about slurred speech.
Why do people slur their words when they drink?
Alcohol is a toxin that affects nearly every portion of the brain. It also affects the portion of the brain that allows coordination of facial and speech muscles, making it more difficult to speak and to enunciate speech. Alcohol starts by affecting the higher functioning centers, including the forebrain or frontal cortex of the brain, by altering the way messages are transmitted between nerves in the brain. Acute intoxication is commonly associated with slurred speech.
Can lack of sleep cause slurred speech?
Yes. Lack of sleep does commonly cause slurred speech. Lack of sleep hinders the brain from being able to repair itself and restore neurotransmitters that are exhausted during the day. This decreases the brain's ability to perform complex tasks, including speech. It also greatly decreases the ability to pay attention to tasks at hand, causing an inability to coordinate vocalizations mid-sentence.
Why do I have balance problems and slurred speech?
Most notably, balance problems and slurred speech can be signs of a stroke. If you have no discernible cause for these symptoms and experience a sudden onset of them, you should seek medical care immediately. Balance problems and speech problems denote an issue in the brain affecting many different portions of the brain.
What does slurred speech sound like?
Slurred speech, or dysarthria, usually involves an inability to make a particular motion with the mouth and tongue. This causes words that necessitate that movement to sound incomplete or slurred. These are called articulation errors. Slurred speech may sound different depending on the language or the individual affected.
Is slurred speech permanent?
This depends on the cause of slurred speech. Slurred speech from alcohol usually dissipates as the body metabolizes the toxins from the blood as they drain from the brain. Slurred speech from a permanent brain injury such as dementia, strokes, or lesions of the cranial nerves that allow movement of the oropharyngeal muscles cause more permanent slurring.
If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions
Take a quiz to find out why you're having slurred speech
Slurred Speech Symptom Checker Statistics
People who have experienced slurred speech have also experienced:
- 7% Headache
- 6% Dizziness
- 5% Fatigue
People who have experienced slurred speech were most often matched with:
- 43% Stroke Or Tia (Transient Ischemic Attack)
- 31% Brain Tumor Or Mass
- 25% Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Als)
People who have experienced slurred speech had symptoms persist for:
- 38% Over a month
- 27% Less than a day
- 21% Less than a week
Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).
- Dysarthria. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. ASHA Link
- Dysarthria. National Aphasia Associaton NAA Link
- Vertebrobasilar circulatory disorders. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. MedlinePlus Link
- Hypothermia: A cold weather hazard. National Institutes of Health: National Institute on Aging. Published Dec. 21, 2018. NIA Link
- Overview of Nervous System Disorders. Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library. Johns Hopkins Medicine Link
- Management of substance abuse: Acute intoxication. World Health Organization. WHO Link
- Wilson Disease Information Page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Updated June 6, 2018. NINDS Link
- Stroke Symptoms. American Stroke Association. ASA Link