What are all of those little bumps all over your tongue? Some types of “tongue bumps” are normal, while others are not. In fact, there are all different sorts of bumps that are typical to see, depending on which part of your tongue you’re looking at.
Yes! In fact, if you didn’t have tongue bumps, it would mean something was wrong. Like when someone has geographic tongue, and their tongue is completely smooth in those areas.
Occasionally, these different tongue bumps can get inflamed or infected, causing them to stand out from the rest. If it looks the same on one side of your tongue as it does on the other, it’s probably normal.
Papillae/papilla are those tiny bumps that are all over your tongue. There are different types of papillae, even though they mostly look the same when you’re staring at your tongue in the mirror.
Your papilla house a lot of the taste buds in your mouth, and they can even help secrete some of the saliva (although nowhere near the amount your major saliva glands create.) If you think back to middle school when you learned about the different parts of your tongue sensing different types of taste, like sour, sweet, and salty, it’s thanks to all of those different types of tongue bumps.
Normal tongue bumps are one of three types of papillae:
And then there are the bumps on the very back of your tongue, which are the lingual tonsils.
Not to be gross or anything, but if you’ve ever stuck your finger down your throat because you’re on the verge of throwing up and just want to get it over with, you’ve probably felt the lingual tonsils back there (please don’t do this on purpose, by the way.)
The slightly smaller but still-large tongue bumps in front of your lingual tonsils are the circumvallate papillae. These are larger circle-shaped bumps on the back of your tongue, and you can probably see them if you’re sticking your tongue out really, really far. Most people have about a dozen or so of them lined up side-by-side along the back of the tongue. They house hundreds of taste buds.
Fungiform papillae are smaller and scattered at various points across your tongue. Surrounding them are the smallest tongue bumps, which are the filiform papillae.
It’s completely normal to have different types and sizes of tongue bumps. But sometimes, these papillae can get irritated or inflamed. This can lead to soreness or even irritation when you’re trying to swallow or clean your tongue.
The good news is that most inflamed papillae are temporary problems that heal within a week or so. If you accidentally poke your tongue with a tortilla chip or bite down on it when you’re chewing, you’ll probably cause a swollen tongue and irritation. It happens.
When there are sore bumps on your tongue that last longer than 10-14 days—especially if they are only present on one side of your tongue and not both—it’s important to see your dentist for an exam.
Understanding which mouth bumps are normal and which ones are not can help you identify illness, infection, or disease more easily. Whenever you’re looking at sores or inflamed bumps on your tongue, think of your mouth as a mirror image on one side and the other. If it’s normal and supposed to be there, it will likely look almost identical on the opposite side of your mouth. But if you have sores or bumps on your tongue on only one side, it’s more likely to be something that isn’t supposed to be there.
When you’re narrowing down the different types of tongue bumps to self-diagnose what’s going on inside your own mouth, watch for the following types:
Oral thrush is a type of yeast infection almost always causes a white patches of residue or bumps on the tongue. It can be caused by a lack of home care, wearing dentures, taking certain medications, or being immunocompromised.
Fever blisters, aphthous ulcers, and canker sores all tend to cause intense oral pain whenever they pop up. And although most people get them on their lips, cheeks, or even their gums, they can also form under or on your tongue. Canker sores generally go away on their own and are often caused by stress.
It’s totally normal to see mouth sores and tongue bumps from silly things like biting down on a tortilla chip the wrong way, jabbing yourself with your toothbrush, or even if you accidentally bite your tongue when you’re rushing through a meal. When you do, that traumatized area will usually swell up.
Treatment: Time, time, and more time. And warm salt water rinses. Tongue injuries normally these areas will heal totally on their own. If they start to look infected or the damage is serious enough that you feel like it needs stitches, go see a dentist ASAP.
Treatment: Your dentist will probably need to run a biopsy to determine the exact cause—and thus the best treatment—if you have leukoplakia anywhere inside your mouth. Be sure to provide them with a list of any medications that you’re taking.
Treatment: Stop lying, of course! Ok, just kidding. These sores are temporary. But if they don’t get better with a modified diet or a warm salt water rinse, go ahead and see your dentist to get something called in for them. In the meantime, keep your mouth moisturized and drink plenty of water.
Treatment: Antibiotic treatment is available. Syphilis doesn’t go away on its own, and there are no at-home treatments. The thing you want to do is see a healthcare provider ASAP, especially since it can affect your internal organs in the years ahead.
Food allergies and seasonal allergies can both cause tongue bumps/papillae to swell, especially if you’ve already had your other tonsils removed. Since your tongue is highly vascular, it gets irritated easily as part of allergic reactions.
Treatment: Severe food allergies require the use of an epi-pen and an emergency room visit. In comparison, rhinitis or seasonal allergies are typically managed with over-the-counter medications. If you’re a mouth breather, this can cause further irritation to your tongue, so try to seek out treatment that will help clear your nasal passages so that you can breathe through your nose instead.
Treatment: The best treatment for tongue cancer is early diagnosis. The quicker it’s diagnosed, the less invasive the treatment is. Your oral surgeon and oncologist may recommend surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy, depending on the type and extent of cancerous growth.
Even though most people associate TB with the lungs, it can also exhibit itself with oral symptoms, particularly on the tongue. It’s only seen in about 0.1-5% of TB infections, and it can cause ulcers as well as nodules to grow in your mouth or on your tongue. Even your uvula (that little hangy-down-thing at the back of your throat) can become inflamed.
Treatment: Treating oral tuberculosis is the exact same as treating regular TB. In most cases, it involves a cocktail of several different drugs. However, if your mouth hurts, your dentist may recommend warm salt water rinses or a miracle mouthwash for analgesic purposes.
Are you wearing an orthodontic appliance, partial denture, or something else in your mouth that’s physically irritating your tongue? Is there a sharp filling or chipped tooth somewhere? If you haven’t noticed, you’re probably rubbing your tongue on it constantly, causing further insult to injury.
Treatment: Talk to your dentist, orthodontist, or prosthodontist about getting any appliances or dental work smoothed out so that it doesn’t keep irritating your tongue. Irritation can also come from the foods you eat, so watch your diet and food selection!
Over the past couple of years, we’ve gathered data from COVID patients showing a higher incidence of things like mouth sores, geographic tongue, and possibly even fissured tongue when they’re infected with the virus. COVID mouth sores or tongue sores don’t appear in everyone, but it was frequent enough that doctors started to notice.
Treatment: Considering COVID affects the tongue by altering taste and affecting the nerves of your face, it simply must run its course. Depending on the latest treatment options, your doctor may prescribe medicine or not. Rinsing with warm salt water as needed can help alleviate discomfort related to tongue bumps due to the viral infection.
You know how your “regular” tonsils in the back of your throat get all swollen and red whenever your allergies flare up? The lingual tonsils on the back of your tongue can get irritated too. People who have had their other tonsils removed sometimes see their tongue-surface tonsils swell up more frequently as an after-effect. When they do, you’ll be able to see and feel the bumps on your tongue more easily.
If you have known food allergies, be on the lookout. Your tongue is highly likely to swell if you eat something that you’re allergic to. It might also tingle or feel itchy.
Some people get bumps on their tongue every time they eat something spicy or acidic, like tomatoes or tomato-based sauces. Salty foods like tortilla chips can do it too. Once you’re able to figure out what your triggers are, it’s best to either avoid acidic and spicy foods or cut back on them so that your tongue doesn’t stay irritated.
Rinsing with warm salt water and staying hydrated will help minimize swollen papillae and inflamed tongue bumps. And if you’re prone to frequently getting sores in your mouth, like recurring ulcers, ask your dentist about getting some “miracle mouthwash” to have on hand.
When I comes to oral health, it's always a good idea to practice good oral hygiene!
Any time there is an irregular bump on your tongue—and it looks like swollen papillae or something like that—but it lasts longer than 14 days, you automatically need to go and see your dentist. Especially if it’s only on one side of your tongue and not the other. Dentists are best for examining mouth sores, as they’re experts when it comes to the oral cavity. They can easily tell you whether it’s completely normal. Or, if they have some suspicions about what it might be, they can order a biopsy or send you straight to an oral surgeon for further diagnosis. If it’s so far back on your tongue that you can’t see it, calling your physician or an oral surgeon may be the best approach.
Most tongue bumps are normal. Our tongues are covered in hundreds of papillae, with four main types. And on occasion, they get irritated or swell up. But when there are asymmetrical bumps on our tongue or sore areas that stay irritated for more than 10-14 days, it’s important to see your dentist for an oral exam. While most serious types of oral disease aren’t on the surface of your tongue where these mouth bumps are, it’s still important to rule out anything too major. Otherwise, irritated taste buds typically improve within a few days. Be sure to avoid triggers like acidic foods, which might make some people more prone to flare-ups.
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