Your taste buds are the reason you can tell that a lemon is tart and ice cream is sweet. These tiny sensory organs line your tongue. They enable you to identify all the different tastes — sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (meaty or savory).
You have about 10,000 taste buds in total. They’re housed inside the tiny bumps that line your tongue, called papillae. Each taste bud has between 10 and 50 sensory cells that are connected to nerve fibers. These fibers send the message to your brain that you’ve just bitten into an apple or licked a lollipop.
You have three types of papillae:
- Fungiform papillae are the most common type. You’ll find them on the tip and edges of your tongue. These papillae help you not only to taste, but also to detect temperature and touch through sensory cells they contain.
- Circumvallate papillae are located at the base of your tongue. They’re large and round, and they house several thousand taste buds.
- Foliate papillae are clustered on the back edges of your tongue. Each one contains several hundred taste buds.
Normally you shouldn’t be able to feel your taste buds. But sometimes they can swell up. Enlarged or inflamed taste buds can become irritated and painful. Having swollen taste buds may make eating or drinking uncomfortable.
A number of conditions — from allergies to infections — can make your taste buds swell up.
|Possible cause||Additional symptoms and information|
|acid reflux and GERD||When you have gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), acid backs up from your stomach into your esophagus. If that acid makes it all the way into your mouth, it can burn the papillae on your tongue.|
|allergies and food sensitivities||Certain foods, chemicals, or other substances can cause a reaction when they touch your tongue.|
|burning your mouth||Hot foods or drinks can burn your taste buds, causing them to swell up.|
|infection||Infections with some viruses can make your tongue swell up. The bacterial infection scarlet fever can also make your tongue red and swollen.|
|irritation||A sharp tooth or denture can rub against your papillae and irritate them.|
|oral cancer||Very rarely, swelling or redness of the tongue could be signs of oral cancer. Usually with cancer, the bumps will appear on the sides of the tongue, or you’ll see a lump on your tongue.|
|smoking||Cigarettes contain chemicals that irritate the taste buds. Smoking can also dull your taste buds, reducing your ability to distinguish flavors.|
|spicy or acidic foods||Eating spicy foods like hot peppers or foods that are very acidic like citrus fruits can irritate your tongue.|
|stress||Being under stress has been linked to many health issues, including swollen, enlarged papillae.|
|transient lingual papillitis (TLP)||TLP is a common condition that causes inflamed or enlarged papillae. It affects about half the population at one time or another. It lasts only a short time.|
|vitamin deficiencies||A lack of iron, vitamin B, or other nutrients may cause your tongue to swell up.|
Swollen papillae usually aren’t serious. Oral cancer is one possible cause, but it’s not common. If you’re not sure of the cause, or the swelling doesn’t go away, see your doctor.
Other signs of oral cancer include:
- a sore in your mouth
- pain in your mouth
- a white or red patch on your tongue, gums, tonsils, or the inside of your mouth
- numbness of your tongue
- a lump in your cheek
- trouble chewing, swallowing, or moving your jaw or tongue
- sore throat that doesn’t go away
- lump in your neck
- weight loss
- loose teeth
Other symptoms that could signal a more serious problem include:
- high fever
- cough that doesn’t go away
- pain that doesn’t go away
The complications depend on what condition is causing your swollen taste buds. Many of the issues that cause swollen taste buds will get better on their own with no further problems. While your taste buds are swollen, they can make eating painful and difficult.
Your doctor can diagnose the cause of swollen taste buds just by examining your tongue. Your doctor or dentist will look at the color, texture, and size of your tongue. While wearing gloves, they might touch your tongue to see if there are any bumps or lumps, or to check whether you have any pain.
If your doctor suspects oral cancer, you might need a biopsy. This test removes a small sample of tissue from your tongue. The sample is sent to a lab and examined under a microscope.
TLP usually goes away on its own within a few days. Other causes are treated based on the condition.
- Acid reflux: Take antacids, H2-receptor blockers, or proton pump inhibitors to reduce or block stomach acid.
- Allergies: Avoid the foods that trigger your symptoms.
- Infections: Take antibiotics if bacteria caused the infection.
- Vitamin deficiencies: Take vitamin or mineral supplements to bring your levels back up to normal.
Talk to your doctor to come up with a treatment plan that works for you. You shouldn’t take any supplements without checking in with your doctor first.
Here are a few other things you can do to keep your papillae and the rest of your mouth healthy:
- Practice good oral hygiene: Brush twice a day, floss daily, and use a mouth rinse. These practices will prevent bacteria from building up on your tongue and teeth.
- Quit smoking: Smoking stains your teeth, dulls your sense of taste, increases your risk for gum disease, and makes you more likely to get oral cancer. Smoking cessation products, medicine, and therapy can all help you kick the habit.
- Avoid spicy or acidic foods: Foods like citrus fruits and hot peppers can irritate your tongue even more.
- Gargle with a mixture of warm water and salt three times a day: This will help keep your mouth clean.