Some people with bumps on their tongue may worry about cancer, but oral cancers are relatively rare. According to the American Cancer Society, around 50,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with these types of cancer in 2018.
Tongue cancer is even less common, but anyone who is worried about their tongue bumps should speak to a doctor who specializes in oral health to ease their mind.
In this article, we look at the causes and symptoms of tongue bumps. We also explain when to see a doctor, treatment options, and the outlook.
Canker sores may be triggered by certain foods.
Tongue bumps have many possible causes. The mere presence of a bump on the tongue is rarely enough information on which to base a diagnosis. Some of the most common causes of tongue bumps include:
An injury to the tongue can make it look or feel bumpy. As with other areas of the body, the tongue may swell in response to an injury.
People who accidentally bite their tongues sometimes notice a swollen bump for a few days after the injury. Burns from hot liquids or foods are another common cause of tongue injuries.
Herpes is a common viral infection, affecting about 60 percent of U.S. adults. Some people with oral herpes never experience symptoms. However, most people will develop cold sore blisters around their nose or mouth from time to time.
Some people also develop blisters on the tongue or gums. These blisters can be very painful and may last a week or more.
Oral herpes is contagious and can spread through saliva, direct contact with the infected area, or contact with the lining of the mouth and tongue. This can occur even when no symptoms are present.
Canker sores are among the most common causes of sores in the mouth. They often grow on the inside of the lips, but may also appear on the tongue. The sores tend to be red, white, or yellow in appearance and can feel raw and very painful.
Some people notice that certain foods seem to trigger canker sores. However, the cause of canker sores is still poorly understood.
Most canker sores go away on their own, but some may become very painful and necessitate a trip to the doctor.
Food intolerances and allergic reactions may cause bumps on the tongue or make it swell. Sudden, immediate swelling of the whole tongue could be a sign of a dangerous reaction known as anaphylaxis.
A person should seek immediate medical assistance if they are:
- experiencing swelling of the lips, mouth, or tongue
- developing a sudden rash or hives
- wheezing or having any other breathing difficulties
Although rare, a bump on the tongue could be cancer. A tongue bump is more likely to be cancerous if it grows on the side of the tongue, particularly if it is hard and painless. It is worth consulting a doctor about any lump or bump that lasts longer than a week or two.
An infection in the mouth or on the tongue may cause swelling and pain at the site of the infection. If the tongue swells after being bitten or as a result of a significant injury, it is important to see a doctor.
Even a healthy mouth is full of bacteria. Any injury can make it easier for bacteria to get into the tissues of the tongue.
If the bump is very painful or comes with a fever, it is essential to see a doctor within 24 hours as this could be a sign of a serious infection.
People with syphilis sometimes develop tongue sores as an early symptom of the disease.
Syphilis is a treatable but potentially life-threatening bacterial infection. People can contract the infection through direct contact with syphilis sores during vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
Some people with syphilis occasionally develop sores on the tongue as an early symptom of the disease. This is more common if the tongue is the site of infection, as is the case when syphilis spreads through oral sex.
Tuberculosis is an infectious disease that usually affects the lungs. Some people with tuberculosis develop lesions and sores on their body. The sores can be anywhere, including on the tongue.
Tongue lesions due to tuberculosis are extremely rare, but they may be the first symptom of the disorder in a newly infected person.
Oral thrush is a yeast infection in the mouth. Yeast is a type of fungus that commonly grows in moist, dark places. Babies, especially newborns, often develop oral thrush.
Other risk factors for developing oral thrush include:
- corticosteroids, including asthma inhalers
- conditions that weaken the immune system, such as HIV, organ transplantation, autoimmune diseases, and cancer
- medications or conditions that cause dry mouth
Most people with oral thrush usually notice rough white patches on the tongue or the lips. There is often redness and a sore mouth as well.
Some people describe a cottony feeling in their mouth or a sensation of dryness. Others experience cracking near the lips, or pain when eating.
Transient lingual papillitis (lie bumps)
Lie bumps are tiny bumps located on the tongue's upper surface.
Transient lingual papillitis, also known also as lie bumps, is a temporary inflammation of the tongue's papillae. These are the tiny bumps found on the upper surface of the tongue.
Lie bumps can be painful and may cause itching, extreme sensitivity, or a burning sensation on the tongue. They usually appear suddenly. The cause of lie bumps is poorly understood, but symptoms typically go away on their own after a few days.
Certain foods, such as sour candy or very acidic foods, can irritate the tongue, gums, and lips. This can result in hard or bumpy spots that last for a few days. If the area is sore and feels raw, recent dietary changes might be responsible.
Diagnosis and when to see a doctor
The only cause of tongue bumps that is a medical emergency is anaphylaxis. People who have very swollen tongues or who are experiencing breathing problems alongside their tongue bumps should seek immediate medical assistance.
Unless a bump on the tongue is causing intense pain or the person is also feverish, it is usually safe to wait a few days before seeing a doctor. If the symptoms persist longer than a week, it is best to speak to a doctor. A growing tongue bump that does not go away could be a more serious condition or potentially even cancer.
It is also recommended to see a doctor for painful tongue bumps that keep coming back.
To diagnose the bumps, a doctor will inspect them and ask about the person's medical history and any food allergies.
In some cases, a doctor may order a blood test to rule out infections such as syphilis and tuberculosis. If cancer is suspected or if the cause of the bump is unknown, the doctor may recommend a biopsy or removal of the lump for diagnosis.
Treatment and home remedies
Drinking plenty of water is a recommended home remedy.
Treatment depends on the cause of the bump. Antifungal medications are a treatment option for oral thrush while most bacterial infections will require antibiotics.
Some conditions, such as lie bumps, will clear up on their own. Herpes is not curable, but antiviral medications can help prevent further outbreaks.
Many medical conditions can weaken the immune system and make tongue bumps more likely, so treatment may also include testing for other diseases, such as diabetes. Proper management of these conditions can reduce the risk of tongue bumps returning.
Regardless of the cause of the bumps, some home remedies may help. Those include:
- avoiding acidic and spicy foods until the bumps disappear
- drinking plenty of water
- gargling with warm salt water and baking soda mouth rinses on a regular basis
- applying topical remedies to reduce pain. Some products are available to purchase over the counter or online, such as canker sore medication or oral numbing gels
- avoiding alcohol-based mouthwashes until the bumps disappear. A range of non-alcohol mouthwashes is available online.
Good oral health can reduce the risk of tongue bumps and cancer, and can help prevent bumps from getting infected or becoming painful. People should take care of their oral hygiene by:
- brushing their teeth twice daily and flossing at least once a day
- seeing the dentist twice a year
- rinsing the mouth thoroughly after using steroid inhalers
- avoiding foods that irritate the gums
- limiting the use of sugary snacks and foods that can cause tooth decay
- quitting smoking and avoiding using chewing tobacco or any similar products
- limiting alcohol
- treating any underlying health problems, such as diabetes
Most tongue bumps appear without obvious cause and go away on their own. They may come back months or years later or never occur again. In either case, tongue bumps should rarely be cause for concern.
Even when tongue bumps are the result of a more serious medical condition, such as an infection, they can be a helpful early warning sign that encourages prompt treatment. By seeing a doctor sooner rather than later, it is possible to improve the outlook associated with ongoing medical conditions, including cancer.
Tongue bumps can be a source of worry or embarrassment. However, they are a common occurrence and are most likely to be due to a minor injury or a fairly harmless condition.
People with tongue bumps should monitor their symptoms and take good care of the mouth and tongue. If symptoms get worse or are very painful, they should see a doctor.