Small bumps on the tongue are common. However, bumps that change size or feel irritated could signal a few different health conditions.

Fungiform papillae are the small bumps located on the top and sides of your tongue. They’re the same color as the rest of your tongue and, under normal circumstances, are unnoticeable. They give your tongue a rough texture, which helps you eat. They also contain taste buds and temperature sensors.

Papillae can become enlarged for a variety of reasons. Most of the time, these reasons aren’t serious. See a doctor if the bumps are persistent, are growing or spreading, or are making it hard to eat.

In this article, we take a closer look at what might irritate the papillae, along with other conditions that can cause bumps on the tongue.

Lie bumps (transient lingual papillitis)

About half of us experience lie bumps at some point. These little white or red bumps form when papillae become irritated and slightly swollen. It’s not always clear why this happens, but it may be related to stress, hormones, or particular foods.

Although they can be uncomfortable, lie bumps aren’t serious and usually clear up without treatment and within a few days. However, the bumps can recur.

Eruptive lingual papillitis is most common among children and is likely contagious. It can be accompanied by fever and swollen lymph nodes. It’s sometimes associated with a viral infection. It generally doesn’t require treatment and clears up within 2 weeks, but it can recur.

How to treat lie bumps

Treatment isn’t usually necessary and the condition often improves on its own. However, saltwater rinses or cold, smooth foods may provide relief. You can also reduce irritation by avoiding sour and spicy foods.

See a doctor if the bumps don’t heal within several days, or if pain interferes with eating.

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Canker sores (aphthous ulcers)

Canker sores can occur anywhere in the mouth, including under the tongue. The cause of these painful, red sores is unknown. Canker sores are not contagious, and they usually feel better in 7 to 10 days without treatment.

How to treat canker sores

Over-the-counter pain relievers may ease symptoms. See a doctor if canker sores are persistent, are accompanied by fever, or are so painful that you can’t eat or drink. Prescription-strength topical treatments may help.

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Squamous papilloma

Squamous papilloma is associated with the human papillomavirus (HPV). It’s usually a painless, irregularly shaped bump that can be treated surgically or with laser ablation. There’s no single best treatment for HPV, but individual symptoms can be addressed.

How to treat squamous papillomas

Squamous papilloma is a harmless, benign growth that doesn’t require treatment. The lesion might cause irritation depending on its location, at which time you can discuss removal with your doctor. Removal options include cautery (burning off tissue), excision, laser surgery, and cryotherapy (freezing off tissue). Recurrence is unlikely after removal.

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Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). It usually begins with a small, painless sore that’s easy to dismiss. The initial sore is followed by a rash. More sores come and go as the disease progresses. In the early stages, syphilis is easily treated with antibiotics. During the secondary stages, sores may appear in the mouth and on the tongue. The infection causing these sores can lead to serious complications, and even death, if left untreated.

How to treat syphilis

Syphilis requires a short course of antibiotics and doesn’t go away on its own. This typically involves one or more injections of penicillin, or a 10- to 14-day course of another antibiotic (if you can’t take penicillin). It’s important to avoid sexual activity until at least 2 weeks after finishing treatment, and you should notify sexual partners of your diagnosis. See a doctor if you develop a body rash that lasts longer than 2 to 6 weeks, and if you develop small painless sores on your skin and groin area.

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Scarlet fever

Scarlet fever can result in “strawberry tongue.” This condition leaves the tongue red, bumpy, and swollen. This bacterial infection can also cause skin rash and fever. Scarlet fever is usually mild and can be treated with antibiotics. Rare complications include pneumonia, rheumatic fever, and kidney disease. Scarlet fever is contagious and should be taken seriously.

How to treat scarlet fever

Treatment for scarlet fever includes antibiotics. You can also take ibuprofen or acetaminophen to relieve a fever and a sore throat. Other home remedies include drinking plenty of water to prevent dehydration, gargling with salt water, using a humidifier, and avoiding anything that irritates the throat (cigarette smoke, perfumes, cleaning products, etc.).

See a doctor if you develop a red rash and a high fever.

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Glossitis is when inflammation makes your tongue appear smooth rather than bumpy. It may be the result of a variety of causes, including an allergic reaction, smoking and other irritants, or infection.

How to treat glossitis

Treatment depends on the cause. See your doctor if glossitis is persistent or recurring. If due to an infection, your doctor can prescribe an antibiotic or other medication. Good oral hygiene also helps, which includes brushing twice a day and flossing once a day.

Symptoms might also improve with changing your diet or supplementation to treat a nutritional deficiency, and by avoiding anything that irritates your tongue like spicy foods and tobacco. See a doctor if symptoms last longer than 10 days, or if a swollen tongue blocks your airway.

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Mouth cancer

Most bumps on the tongue aren’t serious, but some are cancerous. Cancerous bumps usually appear on the sides of the tongue rather than on the top. The most common type of cancer to develop on the tongue is squamous cell carcinoma.

When oral tongue cancer appears on the front part of the tongue, the lump may be gray, pink, or red. Touching it may cause bleeding.

Cancer can also occur at the back (base) of the tongue. It may be harder to detect, especially because there’s no pain at first. It may become painful as it progresses.

How to treat mouth cancers

If cancer is suspected, a doctor will likely take a tissue sample for examination under a microscope (biopsy). Treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, depending on the type and stage of cancer.

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Traumatic fibroma

Traumatic fibroma is a smooth, pink tongue growth caused by chronic irritation. These lesions might develop if you chew on the inside of your cheek, or if dentures irritate the skin in your mouth. A traumatic fibroma is benign, but they can grow and become larger, especially with repeated irritation.

Since these growths can mimic other types of lesions, your doctor might recommend a biopsy to rule out oral cancer.

How to treat traumatic fibromas

The growth can be surgically removed, if necessary. A traumatic fibroma is often raised, so there’s the possibility of biting the bump again and re-injuring the area. This causes the lesion to grow larger in size. After removal, you can avoid recurrence by breaking habits that caused the original lesion.

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Lymphoepithelial cysts

These soft yellow cysts usually appear underneath the tongue. Their cause isn’t clear, but these small, benign tumors are typically seen in young adults between the ages of 30 and 40. Growths are painless and don’t cause significant signs or symptoms.

How to treat lymphoepithelial cysts

Lymphoepithelial cysts are benign and can be surgically removed. Once removed through complete excision, the growth rarely recurs. There isn’t a way to prevent this condition.

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This image gallery shows different types of bumps that may appear on the tongue.

Bumps on the tongue are common. Some can go unnoticed while others can grow in size and cause irritation.

In most cases these lesions are benign, but it’s important to see a doctor if you develop a new growth, or if a lesion changes in size. Your doctor can diagnose the bump and recommend treatment, if necessary.