- Signs and Symptoms
- When to See the Doctor
What are tongue bumps?
We all have several hundred bumps on our tongues called papillae, also known as the taste buds. There are four types of these papillae:
- Filiform papillae, covering about two-thirds of your tongue and responsible for its sense of touch
- Fungiform papillae, which distinguish flavors and temperature
- Foliate papillae, lining the sides of your tongue
- Circumvallate papillae, which are large bumps toward your throat positioned in a V-shape
Normally, these bumps are largely unnoticeable — they have a consistent color and texture, supporting your ability to eat.
But sometimes tongue bumps can appear swollen. While enlarged papillae may just be a short-term nuisance, they can also make it difficult or painful to eat, talk, swallow, or even taste food.
Inflamed bumps on the back of your tongue — the circumvallate papillae — usually aren’t a cause for concern and will heal on their own. However, severe, spreading, or longer-lasting bumps might be a sign of another underlying condition that requires a doctor’s treatment.
Because your oral health is tied closely to your overall well-being, it’s important to know why you have bumps on your tongue and when to seek medical care.
Signs and symptoms of tongue bumps
Inflamed bumps on the back of your tongue are usually visible, appearing larger and swollen. Sometimes they may change color as well, to white, bright pink, or black patches.
Enlarged taste buds may also cause:
Change in taste
The papillae on the back of your tongue aren’t responsible for taste. But if the inflammation has spread, you may experience a partial or total loss of your taste sensation or have difficulty discerning between flavors like salty, bitter, sweet, or sour.
Difficulty moving your tongue
As the bumps on the back of your tongue swell, it can be hard to move your tongue normally.
Depending on the severity, this could impact normal speaking and swallowing. Swelling can also make your tongue feel sore and appear larger — in some cases, the top and bottom teeth don’t fit neatly together around the tongue.
Pain or a burning sensation
While enlarged bumps can make your tongue feel sore, you may also experience a localized burning sensation in the problem area. This could be an ongoing discomfort or only felt when the tongue is in use, like as you eat.
A furry or hairy texture
Debris, bacteria, and dead skin cells can get lodged and stuck between inflamed tongue bumps. This accumulation causes a white, fuzzy-looking coat on the surface of your tongue.
Causes of tongue bumps
Tongue bumps are common and generally considered harmless — but they can also be a symptom of a more serious condition.
You may experience bumps on the back of your tongue due to:
Oral infections can spread to your taste buds, leading to enlarged bumps. The most common infection is called oral thrush, caused by the yeast Candida albicans. Along with swollen tongue bumps, signs of oral thrush include white lesions, burning, and soreness.
Poor oral hygiene
If you don’t stick to a good brushing and flossing routine, bacteria can build up and cause inflammation throughout your mouth, including in your taste buds. Smoking can also have this same effect.
Canker sores can form at the back of your tongue as well. While their cause is not well understood, research shows that psychological stress may play a role in triggering canker sores. Physical irritation, acidic fruits and vegetables, and hot spicy foods can also contribute to canker sores.
While uncommon, bumps on the back of the tongue can be a sign of oral or tongue cancer. These wart-like bumps — or squamous cell papillomas — can look white or red and may be benign. Only a doctor can diagnose an unusual bump as cancerous.
Leukoplakia is another condition that can cause tongue bumps. This occurs when the cells in your mouth grow excessively, irritating your taste buds. Some people with diabetes, anemia, and autoimmune diseases may also experience inflamed tongue bumps.
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When to see the doctor for tongue bumps
Most enlarged tongue bumps will heal on their own, but you should visit your doctor if:
- Your symptoms last longer than a week
- Bumps are growing, spreading, or bleeding
- Enlarged bumps keep returning after healing
- Painful bumps interfere with your ability to eat or drink
Diagnosing tongue bumps
To diagnose what is causing your tongue problem, a doctor will first ask about your medical history and any known allergies. They’ll perform a tongue exam to look for changes in taste bud color, texture, and size, checking for irregularities to guide a course of treatment.
Your doctor might also order blood tests to rule out other issues like infection or disease. If they suspect cancer, the doctor will refer you to a specialist to perform a biopsy or remove the lump entirely.
Treatments for tongue bumps
Some causes of tongue bumps require treatment from a doctor, like antifungal medications for oral thrush.
You can relieve discomfort caused by most tongue bumps at home, however. Some home remedies include:
- Drinking lots of water, through a straw if it’s more comfortable
- Rinsing your mouth with warm salt water
- Avoiding acidic and spicy foods and alcohol-based mouthwashes that irritate inflammation
- Using topical numbing gels or creams
- Taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory and pain relief medication like ibuprofen
- Not smoking or drinking alcohol
You should monitor the size, color, and spread of tongue bumps as you treat them at home — if there is no change or your condition worsens, make sure to make an appointment with your doctor.
The best home care you can do is prevention. Maintaining good oral hygiene can help prevent inflamed bumps at the back of your tongue and keep them from coming back.
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Annals of Saudi Medicine: "Human Biology of Taste."
Better Health Channel: "Tongue."
Cancer Research UK: "What is tongue cancer?"
Cedars-Sinai: "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Canker Sores."
Clinics: "Psychological Stress and Recurrent Aphthous Stomatitis."
Health Direct: "Allergic reactions to antibiotics."
Mayo Clinic: "White Tongue."
Mount Sinai: "Leukoplakia."
Stanford Medicine: "Examination of the Tongue."
University of Michigan: "Mouth Problems, Noninjury."
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