White Bumps on Your Tongue: What Are They and When You Need to Worry?

Published April 11th, 2022 by Chris Riley
Fact Checked by
Erik Rivera
Medically Reviewed:
Dr. Angel Rivera

If you are worried about white bumps on your tongue, it's important to know that many people experience this issue at some point in their lives. I

n most cases, white bumps on the tongue are nothing to worry about and will go away on their own but there are a few instances where white bumps on the tongue may be a sign of something more serious and warrant a visit to your doctor or dentist.

In this article, we will discuss what white bumps on the tongue are, when you need to worry about them, and how to prevent them from occurring.

What are the white bumps on my tongue?

There are a number of reasons you have white bumps on your tongue, some of the reasons are benign while others may require seeking medical attention.

The white bumps will usually go away on their own; however, there are some medical conditions that may need treatment by your dentist or doctor.

The common problems that cause white bumps on your tongue include:

Oral thrush

Oral thrush, also known as Oral candidiasis, is a naturally occurring fungus that is a type of yeast that can overgrow in your mouth causing white bumps.

It's common in infants and toddlers, as well as if you have a weakened immune system, which can be caused by conditions such as cancer or HIV.

Other causes include medications, anemia, diabetes, smoking, and dry mouth. Besides the white bumps or patches on your tongue, other symptoms include:

  • White patches at other places in your mouth
  • Cottage cheese looking lesions
  • Cracked, red, dry patches at the corner of your mouth
  • Inability to taste
  • Dry mouth

Treating oral thrush requires an oral scraper or brushing your tongue to remove the white film.

Leukoplakia

Leukoplakia is a medical condition where white patches form on your tongue, the inside of your cheek, gums, or the bottom of your mouth.

The patches are caused by an overgrowth of cells and can be precancerous, meaning they could potentially turn into oral cancer, specifically squamous cell carcinoma.

Leukoplakia is most commonly seen in smokers, but it can also be seen in people who chew tobacco or betel nuts.

The white patches can vary in size and usually don't cause any pain but can feel thick and hard. If the spots do not go away on their own, you may require treatment such as surgery, laser removal, or cryotherapy where the lesions are frozen off of your tongue.

Other symptoms of leukoplakia include:

  • Pebbled, bumpy texture on the tongue with red or white patches
  • Nodules
  • Ulcers
  • Bleeding
  • Hardening of affected areas

In some cases, leukoplakia can go away on its own, but it's important to see your dentist or doctor to rule out cancer.

Canker sores

Canker sores, also called Aphthous stomatitis or aphthous ulcers, are small white bumps surrounded by red inflammation that form on your tongue, gums, or the inside of your cheek.

If you experience a canker sore, it can be a very painful bump that can make it difficult to eat or talk.

Canker sores are not contagious and there is no known cause but stress, trauma (such as an accidental cheek bite), food sensitivities, hormones, and certain medical conditions are all thought to increase your risk for them. There is no cure for canker sores, but they usually go away on their own within a couple of weeks.

In the meantime, you can try to reduce the pain with over-the-counter medications or home remedies such as saltwater rinses or cold compresses.

Hairy leukoplakia

Hairy leukoplakia is white, hairy bumps that form on the side of your tongue. It's caused by the Epstein-Barr virus, which is the same virus that causes mononucleosis.

Hairy leukoplakia usually affects people with weakened immune systems, such as people with HIV/AIDS. The white patches can vary in size and usually don't cause any pain but have a hairy appearance.

Due to the cause being related to a weakened immune system, hairy leukoplakia will not go away on its own. If you are concerned about its appearance, there are some medications you can take to treat it but it will come back when you stop taking the medication.

Oral lichen planus

Oral lichen planus is white bumps or patches that form on your tongue, gums, inside of your cheek, or on the lining of your mouth. It's a chronic condition caused by problems with your immune system.

The white bumps can vary in size and usually don't cause any pain but can feel rough. There is no cure for oral lichen planus, but it can go away on its own or, in severe cases that cause ulcers, an oral or topical medication may be used to treat the pain.

To reduce the symptoms, try treating them with good oral hygiene or by eliminating anything that may be causing the overactive immune system.

Lie bumps

Lie bumps, also called transient lingual papillitis, are white or red bumps that form on your tongue.

These red or white spots are usually painful and can be sore to the touch.

There is no known cause of lie bumps despite the old wive's tale saying they form after you tell a lie. Lie bumps usually go away on their own within a couple of days but can last up to two weeks. Treatment for lie bumps includes:

  • Avoiding acidic food
  • Avoiding spicy food
  • Doing a saltwater rinse
  • Brushing your teeth regularly after meals
  • Using mouthwash
  • Using over-the-counter pain relievers for any pain you may experience

Geographic tongue

Geographic tongue, also called benign migratory glossitis, is white bumps or patches that form on your tongue. These bumps can move around and change shape and size.

The cause of geographic tongue is unknown but it's thought to be related to inflammation. Geographic tongue usually goes away on its own within a couple of weeks but can come back at any time.

Geographic tongue is a benign growth so treatment is not necessary unless you're experiencing pain, in which case you can use over-the-counter medication for pain relief.

When do I need to see a dentist or doctor?

If your white bumps are accompanied by other symptoms such as pain, bleeding, or difficulty swallowing, please see your dentist or doctor.

You also need to seek medical attention if the white bumps don't go away on their own within a couple of weeks.

Is there any way to prevent white bumps on my tongue?

There is no sure way to prevent white bumps on your tongue, but there are some things you can do to reduce your risk:

  • Quit smoking
  • Practice good oral hygiene by brushing and flossing regularly
  • Schedule dental checkups every six months
  • Avoid stress
  • Eat a balanced diet
  • Avoid mouth injury
  • Treat any underlying medical conditions you may have
  • Use a tongue scraper if necessary to avoid bacterial infection

Depending on the cause, there may not be a way to prevent certain types of white bumps from appearing on your tongue. However, if you follow these basic instructions you will reduce the risk factors of certain types of white bumps.

Summary

In most cases, white bumps on your tongue are harmless and will go away on their own. However, if you have white bumps that last more than two weeks, are painful, or are accompanied by other symptoms, it's best to seek medical attention.

Your doctor or dentist will be able to determine the cause and recommend treatment, if necessary.

There are some things you can do to reduce your risk of white bumps on your tongue, such as quitting smoking and practicing good oral hygiene among others. If you have any more questions, please talk to your dentist or doctor about white bumps on your tongue and the best way to treat them.

References and Sources:

Cleveland Clinic

Mayo Clinic

NHS UK

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