Warts are flesh-colored bumps caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). They can form on various parts of the body, such as the hands or genital area. They can transmit from person-to-person.
Since warts may spread from one part of the body to another, it’s possible to get one on your tongue. Oral HPV is a common condition, too. About 7 percent of the U.S. population has oral HPV, estimates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Here’s what you need to know about tongue warts, including types, treatments, and prevention.
- Squamous papilloma. These cauliflower-like lesions have a white appearance and result from HPV strains 6 and 11.
- Verruca vulgaris (the common wart). This wart can develop on different parts of the body, including the tongue. It’s known for appearing on the hands. These bumps are caused by HPV 2 and 4.
- Focal epithelial hyperplasia. Also known as Heck’s disease, these lesions are linked to HPV 13 and 32.
- Condyloma acuminata. These lesions are found in the genital area but can spread to the tongue through sexual contact. It’s associated with HPV 2, 6, and 11.
Tongue warts may develop after oral sex if your partner has genital warts. If your partner has oral HPV, it may also be possible to contract the virus if you engage in open-mouth kissing.
If you touch a wart with your hand and then put that part of your hand in your mouth, you could develop a wart on your tongue. For example, if you bite your nails, you could introduce a wart virus from your fingers to your mouth.
Certain factors put you at risk for warts on the tongue. This includes having a weakened immune system, which makes it harder for your body to fight off viruses.
If you have a cut or scrape, the virus can also enter your body through a break in the skin.
Some warts will go away on their own without treatment. However, this can take months and years.
While tongue warts are usually harmless, they can be a nuisance. This depends on the size of the wart and whether it causes pain or makes it difficult to eat or talk.
While you wait for a wart to disappear, try eating on the side of your mouth opposite the wart. This can reduce irritation. You’re less likely to bite down on the wart, too.
You can also speak with your dentist or dermatologist about treatment options for a wart that doesn’t improve or one which you’d like removed.
One option to remove a wart is through cryotherapy. This procedure uses cold liquid nitrogen to freeze off the abnormal tissue. Another option is electrosurgery. This involves the use of a strong electric current to cut through the wart and remove abnormal cells or tissues.
Both treatments work for different types of warts that develop on the tongue.
Since HPV — whether warts are present or not — can be transmitted by close skin-on-skin contact, the only sure way to prevent contracting or transmitting warts and other HPV infections to a partner is to abstain from all intimate and sexual contact.
This is often not realistic, though, which makes communicating with your partner and doctor even more important.
Tongue warts are contagious, so make sure you understand how to protect yourself. To do that, follow these do’s and don’ts:
- Do get the HPV vaccine. The vaccine offers protection from HPV and genital warts and helps stop the spread of warts to the mouth during oral sex. The CDC recommends the vaccine for children and adults between ages 11 and 26, though adults up to age 45 can now receive the vaccine.
- Don’t engage in oral sex or open-mouth kissing if you have a wart on your tongue or if your partner has a wart on their tongue.
- Share your status. Alert your partner to your HPV status, and ask them to do the same.
- Don’t touch or pick at a wart on your tongue.
- Quit smoking. Research has found that the risk of oral HPV 16 is higher in individuals who use tobacco products.
Some people believe they’ll only get HPV during a partner’s outbreak. Remember that some strains of HPV create warts, and some strains of HPV have little to no outward signs. It’s possible to have HPV without warts.
So, it’s possible to get the virus when warts aren’t visible. HPV may be present in semen, so use a condom during sex, too.
Lesions on the tongue might also be:
See a dentist or dermatologist to diagnose any unusual lesion or bump that appears in your mouth.
According to the American Cancer Society, HPV 16 and 18, among others, increase the risk of cancer.
Between the two, the Oral Cancer Foundation says HPV 16 is strongly associated with oropharyngeal cancer. This is cancer in the tissue of the throat or esophagus. Only about 1 percent of people have this type of HPV, estimates the CDC.
Oral cancers caused by HPV differ slightly from cancer caused by smoking. In the case of HPV, the virus converts normal cells into cancerous cells. With smoking, carcinogens in cigarette smoke damage cells in the mouth and throat, resulting in the development of cancerous cells.
Having HPV doesn’t mean you’ll get cancer, though. The Oral Cancer Foundation points out that the virus clears in most people within two years.
A wart on the tongue doesn’t usually require treatment. It often resolves on its own, although this could take years.
While an HPV infection can clear without complications, notify your doctor if you develop any symptoms that include:
- a lump or swelling in the mouth
- unexplained hoarseness
- persistent sore throat
- difficulty swallowing