If You Have Bumps on Your Tongue, Here’s What They Could Mean

They could be caused by anything from stress to an autoimmune disease.

Person with tongue bumpsAndy Piatt/Shutterstock

Much like your teeth, hair, skin, and nails, your tongue says a lot about your health. Although you might not look at it often, it shows if you need hydration, if you’re missing key vitamins, or if you have any number of diseases. One thing to look out for in particular are bumps on the tongue—they could mean nothing, or that you have an underlying health issue.

What are bumps on the tongue?

The most common tongue bumps are “lie” bumps. Another name for these bumps on the tongue are transient lingual papillitis which are swollen, small bumps on the tongue or the papillae that exist on the surface, according to Jason Abramowitz, MD, of ENT & Allergy Associates in New York City. The bumps themselves aren’t dangerous, but they could be because of another health problem. Although the cause is not entirely clear, Dr. Abramowitz says the assumption is inflammation is to blame. It can occur due to viral infections, acid reflux, stress, foods high in acidity, food allergies, or trauma to the tongue, he adds. Treating these bumps means finding the root cause. Amit Kochhar, MD, clinical assistant professor of otolaryngology and head and neck surgery at Keck School of Medicine of USC, recommends avoiding spicy foods, rinsing with salt water, brushing your teeth after every meal, and using mouthwash to reduce mouth bacteria. “Most cases of tongue bumps should last two to three days,” says Dr. Kochhar. The tongue is only one of the 10 ways you can see disease written all over your face.

There are a whole host of other reasons for bumps on the tongue

Bumps on the tongue come in many other varieties. Tongue fissures, shallow or deep grooves on the surface of the tongue, are usually bumpy and trap food, according to Omid Mehdizadeh, MD, an otolaryngologist and laryngologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. They are associated with Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that also causes dry eyes and dry mouth, as well as Down syndrome, and tongue inflammation, too. These grooves or bumps on the tongue are harmless, but oral hygiene is crucial if you have fissures. Cleaning the tongue prevents irritation and possibly bad breath from lingering foods, according to AAOM.

People with white patches or plaque-like spots or bumps on the tongue might be dealing with leukoplakia. Dr. Mehdizadeh says this often occurs in people who smoke, dip, or chew tobacco as it irritates the tongue. If you think you have leukoplakia, Dr. Mehdizadeh says treatment might include a biopsy to rule out cancer. Similarly, squamous cell carcinoma are thick white or red lesions that might be painful and are associated with alcohol and tobacco use, too, according to Dr. Mehdizadeh.

Still, other possible reasons for various tongue bumps include everything from Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and herpes, to human papillomavirus (HPV). People with EBV could have oral hair leukoplakia, white, sometimes hairy, patches on the tongue; people with HPV could have papilloma bumps; and people with herpes develop cold sore blisters on the tongue, gums, or mouth. Look out for tongue bumps along with these 9 little body changes that could reveal a much bigger health problem.

The worst case scenario…

Although rare, bumps on the tongue could be a sign of oral cancer. Cancers of the tongue often begin as raised white patches that don’t hurt, Dr. Abramowitz says. Fully-formed cancerous lumps or bumps on the tongue often look like an ulcer, are pink or red-ish, and bleed easily. Any lesion that is persistent, painful, firm, bleeding, or growing, should be evaluated by your doctor, Dr. Mehdizadeh says. It’s never a bad idea to bring up any physical changes with your doctor. Make sure you always discuss these 50 health symptoms you should never ignore.

Emily DiNuzzo
Emily DiNuzzo is a former staff writer at Reader’s Digest. There’s a 90% chance Emily is drinking tea right now, but when she’s not writing about food and health with a cuppa by her side, you can find her lifting at the gym, listening to murder mystery podcasts and liking one too many astrology memes.