Lie bumps are small red or white bumps that occur on the tongue. They can cause pain and discomfort but usually go away after 2–3 days. Dietary choices, trauma to the tongue, and stress may increase the risk of developing lie bumps.

“Lie bumps” is the common name for transient lingual papillitis. People used to believe these bumps appeared on a person’s tongue when they lied. While this superstition is long forgotten, the name has stuck.

This article explores the potential causes of lie bumps and how people can treat them.

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Transient lingual papillitis is an inflammatory condition affecting the fungiform papillae on the tongue’s surface. Fungiform papillae are small bumps that contain taste buds and temperature receptors. They are concentrated toward the tip of the tongue but are also all over the top and sides.

According to DermNet, the classic form of transient lingual papillitis is a short-term condition that causes a single small red or white bump on the tongue. These swollen bumps may cause pain and discomfort. They usually last 1–2 days before disappearing and can recur weeks to years later.

Some people describe lie bumps as looking like pimples on the tongue. They may feel:

  • uncomfortable
  • painful
  • swollen
  • itchy
  • tingly

Other than pain or irritation from the bumps, people do not usually have any accompanying symptoms.

There are several types of transient lingual papillitis. They include:

Classic form of transient lingual papillitis

This type typically presents with a single, raised red or white bump toward the tip of the tongue, but there may be several bumps.

There is no associated illness or swollen lymph nodes with the classic form. The bump or bumps may last just a few hours or 1–2 days. The bumps may recur within weeks or not for years.

Transient U-shaped lingual papillitis

Transient U-shaped lingual papillitis is associated with tongue swelling and may occur with COVID-19. The condition may be due to SARS-CoV-2 infection of the mucosa or factors such as poor oral hygiene and oxygen therapy.

Papulokeratotic variant

This variant presents as multiple painless, whitish bumps on the tongue without any other symptoms. This variant may be persistent and recur.

Eruptive lingual papillitis

If a person is experiencing additional symptoms, they may have eruptive lingual papillitis. Experts are unsure whether this is the same as transient lingual papillitis or a separate condition.

In this type, the bumps on the tongue may look the same as transient lingual papillitis. They can also be severe and cover the entire surface of the tongue.

Eruptive lingual papillitis differs from transient lingual papillitis in the following ways:

  • it may last 2–15 days
  • a virus may cause it
  • it is contagious
  • it may cause swollen glands
  • a fever may also occur
  • it is more common in children than adults

While more research is necessary to understand the causes of transient lingual papillitis, the following factors may play a role:

  • irritation, such as burning or biting the tongue
  • stress
  • digestive problems
  • certain foods, such as spicy or acidic foods
  • food allergies

To help treat symptoms of transient lingual papillitis, a person can try:

  • avoiding acidic or spicy foods
  • eating cold foods, such as popsicles
  • rinsing the mouth with salt water
  • using mouthwash to reduce mouth bacteria
  • using an over-the-counter topical treatment

It is a good idea to see a dentist or doctor if the lie bumps:

  • do not go away after a week
  • come back frequently
  • are very painful
  • bleed when touched

A doctor or dentist can usually diagnose lie bumps by looking at them. If they think something else is causing the bumps, they may perform other diagnostic tests.

If bumps on the tongue are not caused by transient or eruptive lingual papillitis, another condition may be the cause.

Other potential causes of bumps on the tongue include:

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV): This is a viral infection spread by skin-to-skin contact. It causes warts and may affect the genitals, mouth, or throat.
  • Canker sores: These are painful, red sores that can occur anywhere in the mouth. They are not contagious and normally get better without treatment within 2 weeks.
  • Syphilis: An early sign of this sexually transmitted infection is a sore that may appear in the mouth.
  • Scarlet fever: One of the symptoms of this bacterial infection is the appearance of red bumps on the tongue.
  • Mouth cancer: Although rare, lumps on the tongue that are grey, pink, or red and bleed when touched may be cancerous. Mouth cancer may appear on the side of the tongue rather than the top.
  • Traumatic fibroma: This is a smooth, pink growth on the tongue. It is caused by chronic irritation, and surgical removal may be necessary.
  • Lymphoepithelial cysts: These are soft yellow cysts that may appear under the tongue. They are normally harmless, and their cause is unknown.

Read about 8 causes of tongue bumps.

Can you pop lie bumps?

Lie bumps may look like pimples, but are not filled with pus. It is important not to squeeze and try to pop lie bumps as this may damage surrounding tissues, cause discomfort, and increase the risk of infection.

Is transient lingual papillitis contagious?

Transient lingual papillitis is not contagious, and there is no definitive cause. However, a related condition, eruptive lingual papillitis, may be contagious if a virus causes it.

What makes lie bumps worse?

The following factors may worsen lie bumps:

  • poor oral hygiene
  • eating spicy or acidic foods
  • stress
  • allergies
  • digestive problems

Lie bumps are common and not usually a cause for concern. They tend to go away on their own after 1–2 days.

A person should speak with a doctor if the bumps on the tongue do not go away after a week, frequently recur, bleed when touched, or are very painful.

A doctor can help determine the cause of the bumps, most of which are not harmful. If the cause is an underlying medical condition, a doctor can help a person access the right treatment.