We don’t often pay much attention to our tongues, but they can actually be a marker of our overall health. The tongue’s appearance can change for many reasons, many of them not too serious. Have you ever noticed bumps on the back of your tongue? Often these bumps are caused by some type of oral infection. Find out what causes these bumps and when they are a cause for concern.
Bumps on the Back of the Tongue: Normal or Abnormal?
The tongue is made up of muscles and the surface is covered with a mucous membrane. Typically, small bumps called papillae cover the surface of your tongue. Between the papillae are taste buds that help you taste food. Usually, the papillae are pretty unnoticeable. But sometimes, they become enlarged and can cause you discomfort or pain. This can happen for many reasons.
Some common reasons why you may see large bumps at the back of your tongue include:
Oral thrush Tongue bumps can sometimes be the result of a condition called oral thrush. You may have oral thrush if the inside of your mouth is red and you have white patches on your tongue and inner cheek, which leave behind red, bleeding spots when you wipe them away. The good news is that oral thrush is pretty harmless for most people and can be cured with antifungal medicine. However, oral thrush can be more serious for people with lower immunity, such as people experiencing cancer treatment or HIV/AIDS.
Leukoplakia The primary symptom of this condition is thickened, white patches on your tongue, gums, bottom of your mouth, and insides of your cheeks. They can’t be scraped off. Chronic irritation from tobacco is often the cause. While leukoplakia patches are usually non-cancerous, some do show early signs of cancer. So, if you’re noticing these patches, it’s best to consult with your dentist or doctor as soon as possible.
Cold sores Also known as fever blisters, cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV) and can appear on your lips, tongue, or insides of your cheeks. They begin as a fluid-filled blister that ruptures after a day or two before starting to heal. The sores usually last around 8-10 days and are highly contagious. Avoid oral contact — like kissing — during this time, and do not share utensils, lip balms, or other items that have touched your mouth. Cold sores usually heal on their own, and though you might be able to speed up the process with antiviral medication or creams, there is no way to get rid of HSV.
Scarlet fever One of the symptoms of scarlet fever is a red and bumpy (“strawberry”) tongue. It’s usually accompanied by a very red, sore throat, a high fever, and a red skin rash. The skin in the creases of your underarms, elbows, and groin may also turn bright red. Scarlet fever most often occurs in children or adults who are in contact with children. The condition is caused by bacteria called group A strep, see a doctor who will usually treat it by prescribing antibiotics.
Oral squamous papilloma Oral squamous papillomas are benign masses that appear on the border of the tongue. They may be linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV). According to the MSD Manual, the most common way to treat them is to remove them with surgery. They’re unlikely to recur, except in immunocompromised patients.
Tongue cancer Rarely, bumps on the tongue can be an indication of oral cancer. According to the MSD Manual, most tongue cancers occur on the side of the tongue, and rarely ever on the top. They say that lumps on both sides of the tongue are usually harmless, but bumps on only one side should be examined, along with unexplained lumps that are hard and/or painless. Early detection is critical here, so you must make an appointment with your doctor if you notice a lump of any size on your tongue. The lump will need to be biopsied, and your doctor will likely refer you to an oncologist.
If you notice tongue bumps at the back of your mouth, it’s normal to be worried. But the good news is that most bumps on your tongue aren’t a cause for too much concern. That said, if your bumps are large, last for several weeks, or are exceptionally painful, don’t hesitate to get them checked. Your doctor or dentist can help you feel comfortable again in no time!