What can cause spots on the tongue?
In this article, we look at what healthy spots on the tongue do, and the causes of unusual spots. We also cover diagnosis, treatment, and prevention tips.
Healthy tongue spots
Papillae help people to taste with the tongue.
There are four kinds of healthy spots or bumps that typically appear on the tongue. The medical term for these spots is papillae.
- Fungiform papillae are the small spots that appear all over the tongue. A person usually has 200 to 400 of these, mostly at the tip and edges of the tongue. Each of these papillae contains three to five taste buds.
- Circumvallate papillae are bigger spots that appear at the back of the tongue. They are slightly raised and are arranged in a 'v' pattern. A person usually has 7 to 12, with each one containing thousands of taste buds.
- Foliate papillae appear on the back of the tongue and at the edges. A person usually has around 20, with each one containing hundreds of taste buds.
- Filiform papillae are found in the center and at the front of the tongue. There are more of this type of papillae than any other. They do not contain taste buds.
Papillae help people to sense and taste with the tongue. Nerves that send messages about flavor to the brain are connected to taste buds. Papillae are also important for giving information about temperature, chewing food, and speaking.
Causes of unusual spots on the tongue
Tongue spots that are unusual in color, size, or appearance or are accompanied by other symptoms could signal a health problem.
Causes of unusual tongue spots include:
Transient lingual papillitis is a condition more commonly referred to as lie bumps. A key symptom is small red or white bumps on the tongue. These bumps are enlarged or inflamed papillae.
Lie bumps can affect one or several papillae. Other symptoms can include:
- a burning or itching sensation
- greater sensitivity to heat
Lie bumps commonly result from injury to the tongue, for example, when a person accidentally bites their tongue.
Lie bumps usually heal without treatment within a week. If treatment is necessary, a person can try a medicated mouthwash or antihistamines to help them reduce the swelling.
A person with lie bumps can quicken the healing of the tongue by:
- avoiding spicy foods
- avoiding hot liquids or food
- not sucking sweets
- brushing teeth with care
If a person burns their tongue on hot food or liquid, it can cause blisters. These can appear as small, fluid-filled spots on the tongue.
Blisters will heal more quickly if they remain unbroken. A person can promote healing and prevent blisters from breaking by taking care when brushing the teeth and eating and drinking.
A burn on the tongue does not usually require treatment. Keeping the mouth clean by using mouthwash can help to prevent an infection.
Canker sores are very common. These small ulcers look white or yellow and can appear on the tongue, inside of the mouth, and on the lips. The cause of canker sores is not clear.
Canker sores usually go away without treatment. Directly applying an over-the-counter (OTC) medication, such as benzocaine, to the ulcer can relieve discomfort and promote healing.
In some cases, canker sores can be a sign of an underlying health condition. If a person has other symptoms, they may wish to seek medical advice. These symptoms include fever, stomach pain, and a rash elsewhere on the body.
Geographic tongue may appear as a blotch or spot of redness with a white border.
Image credit: Dimitrios Malamos, 2015
The medical term for geographic tongue is benign migratory glossitis.
Geographic tongue causes inflammation on the sides or top of the tongue and usually appears as a blotch or spot of redness surrounded by a white border.
Doctors are not sure what causes geographic tongue, but it may be related to stress, allergies, or diabetes. The condition does not usually cause any other symptoms and should heal without treatment.
Oral yeast infection
A yeast infection known as oral thrush can affect the mouth and tongue. Symptoms include:
- white spots, bumps, or patches on the inside surfaces of the mouth
- a bad taste
- pain or soreness inside the mouth
If a person scrapes off a white patch on the tongue, they will usually see a red, inflamed patch underneath.
Oral thrush results from an overgrowth of yeast that occurs naturally in the mouth. Certain groups of people are more at risk of developing the infection, including:
- newborn babies
- people who wear retainers or dentures
- people with diabetes
- people receiving chemotherapy
- people with a dry mouth due to medication or a medical condition
- people living with HIV
A person can usually treat oral thrush using OTC antifungal medications. A doctor may also recommend:
- changing a person's dentures
- changing how a person cleans their mouth or teeth
- trying a different medication that does not dry out the mouth
Symptoms of scarlet fever can include "strawberry tongue."
Image credit: SyntGrisha, 2015
Scarlet fever is a bacterial infection in the nose and throat. One of the key symptoms is a red, bumpy tongue that people often refer to as "strawberry tongue." Other symptoms include:
- a red, sore throat
- a red, blotchy rash that usually starts on the chest and stomach
- stomach pains
Doctors treat scarlet fever with antibiotics. Following antibiotic treatment, scarlet fever usually goes away in around one week, but the rash can last for longer.
Scarlet fever most commonly affects children and is contagious. The infection can be passed on through:
- coughing and sneezing
- sharing or using contaminated objects, such as cups, foods, towels, baths, and clothes
Oral allergy syndrome
An allergy to certain raw fruits and vegetables can cause itching and swelling in the mouth or on the tongue. Swollen patches on the tongue may appear red and irritated.
The reaction is often mild, and a person can avoid it by cutting out the foods that cause the allergy. Cooking or peeling the fruit or vegetable can often prevent a reaction.
A bump or spot on the side of the tongue, or a red patch on the tongue, is usually harmless. But if it does not go away, it could be a symptom of tongue cancer. Other symptoms include:
- a sore throat that lasts for a long time
- pain when swallowing
- numbness in the mouth
Anyone who has a painless sore, lump, or red or white patch on the tongue that does not go away should see a dentist or doctor.
When to see a doctor
People should consider seeing a dentist or doctor for:
- unusual spots on the tongue last longer than a week
- spots that bleed, become more painful, or spread
A doctor will usually ask about any other symptoms, when the spots appeared, and any pain a person is feeling. This information can help a doctor give a diagnosis and offer further advice or treatment.
Practicing good oral hygiene can help to prevent oral yeast infections and may help the tongue to heal after an injury or illness. To keep the mouth, teeth, and tongue healthy, dentists usually recommend:
- brushing teeth twice per day
- flossing daily
- avoiding too much sugar
It is not possible to prevent all spots on the tongue, particularly those due to infections and canker sores.
Taking medication correctly, keeping the mouth clean, and avoiding irritating the mouth when eating or cleaning teeth can promote healing and prevent spots from reoccurring.
People have many tiny spots on their tongues that are crucial for taste and sensation. But spots that are unusual in color, size, or appearance could be the signs of a health problem.
Unusual spots can have a range of causes, from tongue injuries to an infection. They often go away without treatment but can sometimes be a symptom of a more serious medical condition, such as scarlet fever or tongue cancer.
People may wish to see a dentist or doctor if tongue spots do not go away on their own within a week. If a person has other symptoms, or if the spots bleed or become more painful, they may need treatment.