The tongue helps us taste, eat, and form language. It is also a good indicator of our overall health and well-being. While some bumps and discoloration are harmless, changes to the tongue can also be the body’s way of revealing underlying conditions. Knowing the difference can help with the diagnosis and treatment of ailments or bring unknown allergies and nutritional deficiencies to attention.
Normal Lumps and Bumps
A healthy tongue is pink, mucusy, and covered with small bumps called papillae, which contain taste buds and grip food to move it around while chewing. At the front of the tongue, a group of papillae without taste buds detects food textures. Sometimes, the sides of the tongue develop lumps in the gaps between missing teeth, but this is harmless. Symmetrical lumps are also not a cause for concern.
Transient lingual papillitis or TLP is inflammation of the papillae at the front or back of the tongue. These small, slightly painful red and white bumps are harmless and typically heal within a few days. Sugary, acidic, or spicy foods may trigger TLP, as can stress and hormones. TLP could indicate another underlying health issue if it’s accompanied by other symptoms.
Inflammation to Worry About
Eruptive lingual papillitis is closely related to TLP, causing a sudden onset of painful red and white bumps on the tongue. ELP also causes excessive salivation, fever, and difficulty eating, but experts do not know much else about the ailment. It typically affects children aged five and younger and is easily spread to other family members, leading doctors to believe it is an infection.
Viral and Bacterial Infections
If bumps on the tongue persist for more than a few days or develop into sores, it could be a sign of a more serious infection. Painless lesions on the tongue can be an early symptom of syphilis, and canker sores are quite painful. These yellow-gray spots develop in clusters on the mouth and tongue, usually disappearing in days. Sores that weep pus could mean a herpes infection.
Bumps on a White Tongue
The tongue’s texture makes it prone to accumulating food debris and bacteria between the papillae. A noticeable white film can develop over time, giving tastebuds a contoured appearance. White patches in the mouth are a potential sign of oral thrush, a yeast infection, or oral lichen planus, a chronic condition that also causes swelling. Geographic tongue occurs when patches of papillae are missing, creating map-like red and white spots.
Sometimes the tongue appears bright red or white, and more bumpy than usual, similar to the appearance of a ripe berry. Also known as a strawberry tongue, the uncomfortable swelling can signify an underlying disease. Kawasaki disease, toxic shock syndrome, and scarlet fever all cause the symptom. If a person also experiences fever, sore throat, or rash, they should see a doctor.
Allergic reactions commonly manifest as skin issues. An itchy and swollen mouth, lips, and tongue can occur within minutes of exposure to allergens. If tongue bumps are a result of an allergic reaction, antihistamines can help. Other telltale signs include watery and itching eyes, a runny nose, and wheezing in severe cases. If the tongue and throat continue to swell, epinephrine treatment is likely necessary.
Trauma to Taste Buds
The papillae are particularly sensitive to acids, spices, and extreme temperatures. Eating foods that are too hot or cold damages the taste buds, causing painful inflammation. Severe acid reflux burns the back of the tongue and eating spicy or acidic food worsens the irritation. Grinding the teeth and biting the tongue are other causes for lumps and bumps to appear. In most cases, time is the best medicine.
Preventing Abnormal Tongue Bumps
The best defense against abnormal tongue bumps is a healthy mouth. Regular tooth and tongue brushing reduces bacteria and the chance of infection. These preventative measures are particularly necessary for people with diabetes, on antibiotics, or undergoing chemotherapy, who are more likely to accumulate issues with the papillae. Vitamin deficiencies may also be to blame for tongue bumps and discoloration. A blood test is recommended if mild symptoms persist.
When to See a Doctor
Swollen tastebuds are a relatively common occurrence, but experts recommend medical attention if bumps continue to grow or have not resolved after a month. Oversize lumps that bleed easily should be checked by a doctor; even if they’re not painful, they could be an indication of illness. Other warning signs to communicate with a doctor include persistent pain, difficulty moving the tongue, and unintended weight loss.