close up view of the tongue

Do you have enlarged taste buds on your tongue? Sometimes taste buds get swollen for what seems like no reason whatsoever. Other times, our taste buds are enlarged because the papillae (those tiny little finger-like bumps on our tongue) that they’re on get irritated or traumatized.

What Are Taste Buds?

Taste buds on the tongue are what relay the different flavors of your food up to your brain. If you think back to elementary school, you might remember learning about how different types of taste buds taste different things, depending on where they’re at on your tongue. Some taste sour or bitter foods, others taste salty, while others are more receptive to sweet. They have sensors in them that interpret all of those flavors from the foods you’re eating. We actually need our taste buds as a survival mechanism because they help protect us from potentially poisonous or rotting foods that could kill us if we ate them.[1]

Taste Bud Function: How Do Taste Buds Work?

Taste buds are a cluster of receptor cells that are responsible for transmitting taste sensations to our brain. They cover the papillae in our tongue, but you can’t see them without a microscope.

Depending on which part of your tongue they’re located on, there are 5 main types of taste buds:

Sweet

Activated when exposed to energy-rich nutrients. Your sweet tooth taste buds are most concentrated at the tip of your tongue.[2]

Umami/Savory

This is the most recent addition to the taste bud family. Named for the Japanese word “umami”, these taste buds detect savory foods, such as meat broth or cheese flavors. They encourage appropriate protein intake.

Salty

Salt detection is important for internal electrolyte balance. Salty taste buds are on the sides of your tongue at the very back, behind the sour ones.

Sour

Acidic foods trigger our sour taste buds. Just thinking about them probably makes your mouth water! Sour receptors tend to be on either side of your tongue, toward the front (but not on the tip.)

Bitter

Although some of us purposely eat bitter foods, these taste buds are important for picking up on potential toxins in our diet. They’re located at the very back of our tongue.

What Causes Inflamed Taste Buds?

Normally whenever your tongue gets swollen, it’s a reaction in your papillae and not the actual taste bud receptors inside of all those bumps on your tongue. But even then, there’s a chance the taste buds on the tongue will react if your tongue is starting to swell. So how to get rid of swollen taste buds?

Here are some of the reasons why and how to treat swollen taste buds:

1. Spicy or Acidic Foods

For some people, eating really spicy or sour foods can make their taste buds swell up. Maybe you’re licking a sour lemon Warhead candy because your kid dared you to, or you’re trying a new curry dish that about knocks your socks off because it’s so hot. Before you realize it, the little bumps on your tongue start to feel swollen and irritated.

What to do: Drink some water to help rehydrate your mouth. Mix up a warm saltwater solution to swish and gargle with after eating spicy foods. Saltwater naturally eases inflammation, which is why it’s always a go-to for things like mouth sores or swollen taste buds.

2. Acid Reflux

People who suffer from acid reflux disease have stomach acids that work their way up through their esophagus and inside of the mouth. Stomach acid levels can be so damaging that they cause tooth erosion. So, it should come as no surprise that it can damage soft tissues, too, like your taste buds. Some people will experience burning sensations causing painful taste buds.

What to do: Do what you can to change your diet and stick to a medication regimen to manage your acid reflux disease. Avoid spicy or fatty foods and use anti-reflux medications if you do. Don’t wait until your taste buds are swollen before you do something. Talk to your family doctor about finding the right prescription and nutrition plan to manage and prevent your symptoms.

 3. Poor Oral Hygiene

Someone who never cleans off their tongue when they’re brushing and flossing will almost always develop some type of residue buildup or “hairy tongue” anomaly.

What to do: Use a tongue scraper to clean your tongue at least once a day. If one is not available, brush from back to front using a soft toothbrush. Stay hydrated and drinking water to prevent bacterial infection.

4. You’re Tongue Scraping Too Hard

You can make your taste buds swollen if you’re too aggressive with your tongue scraper or using it incorrectly. Maybe you’re pressing down too hard or using one that’s too rough for your tongue. If you’re catching your papillae/taste buds on the tongue as you scrape it, you’ll probably cause some of them to flare up and get swollen for a few days afterward.

What to do: Only apply light pressure and slowly pull the tongue scraper from the back of your tongue to the front. Some tongue scraper designs have various textures, so always start out with the soft one if that’s an option.

 5. Infection & Thrush

Oral thrush is a type of oral yeast infection that can cause taste bud swelling. But don’t get grossed out; it’s fairly common. Especially in seniors and babies or someone who is immunocompromised. It can be caused by poor oral hygiene or wearing a removable prosthesis—like a denture—too long without cleaning it thoroughly. Taking antibiotics can also predispose you to oral thrush.

What to do: Make sure to clean the mouth routinely, especially every meal. Babies should have their mouths wiped with a clean cloth after every feeding. Thoroughly clean any removable prosthetics as directed. Adults can discuss an antifungal medication with their dentist and may want to consider supplementing with probiotics.

6. Dry Mouth

Xerostomia, or the lack of saliva, prevents everything from moving around smoothly inside of your mouth. What’s supposed to be moist so that your cheeks, tongue, and other tissues glide together becomes dry and sticky. The lack of moisture can even cause sores, chafing, or for some people, irritated or swollen taste buds on their tongue.

What to do: Incorporate dry mouth products like moisturizing mouthwash, mouth sprays, and sugar-free mints to stimulate saliva production. Talk to your doctor about medications that could be contributing to your dry mouth symptoms to see if other alternatives are available. Continue to see your dentist regularly, as you’ll be at an increased risk for tooth decay.

7. Transient Lingual Papillitis (TLP) 

Transient lingual papillitis is when there are swollen, sore bumps on your tongue. Most people get them on the tip of their tongue. They can be caused by trauma (biting your tongue accidentally,) stomach acids, hormones, and other factors. Sometimes they’re very painful.

What to do: Most TLP cases will resolve on their own. But if you’re in a lot of pain, you can ask your dentist about prescribing a corticosteroid to get the inflammation down. If you know certain types of food tend to set it off, avoid them whenever possible.

8. Nothing: They Just Look That Way!

The different types of papillae on your tongue come in various shapes and sizes. Some of them look like swollen bumps compared to their neighbors. Or maybe you even have a little fibroma that’s nothing to worry about!

What to do: Nothing. Just have your dentist check your tongue twice a year during appointments to make sure nothing is changing from visit to visit.

 9. Oral Cancer

Oral cancer is an extremely deadly disease because it’s often difficult—or impossible—to diagnose on your own before it gets severe. You might think you only have swollen taste buds, but the enlargement could really be something more dangerous than that.

What to do: See your dentist every six months for a checkup and oral cancer exam. If they see any type of irregularity, monitor it for two weeks and follow up with a biopsy if it’s still there.

Can Taste Buds Regrow If They Are Damaged? 

Adults have somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 taste buds. Normally, the cells responsible for the sensations are replaced every week with new ones. You’ve probably noticed that if you burn your tongue on hot cheese, your food tastes different for at least a few days afterward. But gradually, those new taste buds become active, and your food tastes normal again. The same could be said if you’re too aggressive with a tongue scraper (although that would take a whole lot of effort to cut off swollen taste buds and probably be really painful!)

Recently, we’ve seen people experience taste dysfunction because of Long COVID-19. In these situations, a tongue film at the cellular level may be to blame for taste insensitivity.[3] Some experts believe that a chronic immune-inflammatory response or prolonged viral shedding is to blame for the cell damage inside of the taste buds.

What Do Taste Buds Look Like?

You cannot physically see taste buds with the naked eye. The only way to actually see them is with a microscope by performing a dissection of the papillae on your tongue.

taste buds

If you have food coloring, you can place a few drops on your tongue and will be able to see some of the different types of papillae. Each of these papillae has small clusters of taste buds that are in groups of 50-150 cells across their surface.

Talk With Your DentistAbout Swollen Taste Buds

Do you have swollen taste buds? It’s probably the papillae that they’re on and not the actual taste buds that are swollen. But if you do notice any type of enlargement or abnormal swelling on your tongue and it doesn’t go away within a few days, be sure to talk to your dentist!

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