What Causes Slurred Speech & When to Seek Care

Slurring your words can be commonly caused by exhaustion or alcohol consumption. More serious causes of dysarthria, or sudden slurred speech, include stroke, abnormal growth or injury to the airways, or brain damage. Read below for more causes and how to treat garbled speech.

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Contents

  1. Symptoms
  2. Causes
  3. 7 Possible Slurred Speech Conditions
  4. Treatments and Relief
  5. Real-Life Stories
  6. FAQs
  7. Statistics
  8. Related Articles
  9. References

Slurred Speech Symptoms

Slurred speech is when you have trouble speaking, your words are slow or garbled, or your words run together. Slurred speech is also called dysarthria [1,2]. There are plenty of jokes about slurred speech, and it's understood to be a sign of drunkenness. However, this sort of speech difficulty is usually due to a neurologic or other physical cause. Unless your slurred speech is clearly caused by temporary exhaustion or alcohol intoxication, you should see a physician immediately.

Common characteristics of slurred speech

Slurred speech can be described by the following.

  • Slow, garbled, and difficult to understand
  • Too fast and therefore unclear
  • Inappropriately loud, or too soft to hear
  • Changing: Your speech may be too fast, too slow, too soft, or too loud.
  • Loss of muscle control: You may lose 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 persist, depending on the cause.

  • Temporary: Some types of dysarthria are temporary and will fade, especially with speech therapy.
  • Persistent: Other types of dysarthria are manageable with appropriate treatment and speech therapy.

Is slurred speech serious?

The severity of your slurred speech symptoms depends on the cause.

  • Not serious: Speech may be mildly slurred due to exhaustion, hypothermia, or alcohol intoxication, but will clear up with treatment.
  • 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 emergencies and must be treated immediately.

Slurred Speech Causes

Circulatory causes

The brain requires a normal blood supply to function [3].

  • Sudden blood vessel damage: A block, leak, or rupture of a blood vessel may seem minor or seem to resolve. However, a block, leak, or rupture in the brain is serious and requires immediate medical attention.
  • Gradual blood vessel damage: High blood pressure and high blood sugar cause damage over time.
  • Heart attack: Heart attacks cause pain, exhaustion, and shortness of breath, which can result in slurred speech.
  • Physical damage to the brain: Brain damage can affect both structure and function. Examples of brain damage include traumatic brain injury or brain tumors that crowd or displace normal brain tissue.
  • Hypothermia: A severe drop in body temperature (below 95 degrees Fahrenheit or 35 degrees Celsius) slows the circulation and brain function [4].
  • Severe exhaustion: Cognition slows as the brain prepares for sleep.

Neurologic illness

Neurologic illnesses cause a gradual and progressive loss of coordination between nerves and muscles [5].

Dysarthria

Dysarthria means that the muscles used for speech are weak or uncontrollable. Dysarthria occurs from conditions that cause facial paralysis or if your tongue or throat muscles are weak in general.

Vocal cord or throat abnormalities

The voice apparatus can be impaired due to the following.

  • Damage to the vocal cords or throat: Damage to your vocal cords or throat, due to an injury or growths, can alter your voice and make it hard to understand.
  • Damaged teeth
  • Swollen tongue or throat: Tongue or throat swelling can occur from an injury or an allergic reaction.

Medications, alcohol, supplements, and drugs

Medications, supplements, alcohol intoxication, and recreational drugs slow thought processes and interfere with motor control needed for clear speech [6].

Mental health causes

The following mental health conditions can result in slurred speech.

  • Severe depression Depression can limit your energy available to speak, especially if you're also medicated.
  • Severe anxiety and panic

Rare and unusual causes

Other unusual causes, such as the following, can result in slurred speech.

  • Excess copper [7]
  • Progressive weakness of the muscles and loss of muscle mass
  • Brain damage 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.

Rarity: Common

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.

Rarity: Rare

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 ...

Read more

Slurred Speech Symptom Checker

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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

Brain abscess

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 lik...

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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.

Rarity: Rare

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 you or someone else is also experiencing:

  • A 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 [8].
  • 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 discuss the following and what will work best for you.

  • Medication list/history: You can discuss all of the medications and supplements you are taking to see if substitutions or adjustments can help.
  • Speech therapy: You can discuss the 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.

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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 travel between nerves in the brain. Acute intoxication is commonly associated with slurred speech.

Can lack of sleep cause slurred speech?

Yes. A lack of sleep commonly causes slurred speech. A lack of sleep hinders the brain from being able to repair itself and restore neurotransmitters. A lack of sleep decreases the brain's ability to perform complex tasks, including speech. It also greatly decreases your 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 aren't aware of a 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. Dysarthria 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?

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 may have permanent results.

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 Buoy Assistant (a.k.a. the quiz).

Slurred Speech Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your slurred speech

References

  1. Dysarthria. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. ASHA Link
  2. Dysarthria. National Aphasia Associaton NAA Link
  3. Vertebrobasilar circulatory disorders. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. MedlinePlus Link
  4. Hypothermia: A cold weather hazard. National Institutes of Health: National Institute on Aging. Published Dec. 21, 2018. NIA Link
  5. Overview of Nervous System Disorders. Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library. Johns Hopkins Medicine Link
  6. Management of substance abuse: Acute intoxication. World Health Organization. WHO Link
  7. Wilson Disease Information Page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Updated June 6, 2018. NINDS Link
  8. Stroke Symptoms. American Stroke Association. ASA Link

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