Stick out your tongue and look in the mirror. The natural bumps on the surface of the tongue that give it its rough texture are called papillae. These bumps are typically smaller on the tip and middle of the tongue and become larger on the back portion. If you look near the tonsils, you'll notice larger bumps, called circumvallate papillae, which are positioned in a V-shape.
Sometimes these bumps on the back of the tongue become enlarged due to sores or an oral infection, and in rare cases can indicate other conditions like oral cancer. If you notice enlarged bumps on your tongue, consult your dentist to determine the possible causes and treatment options.
Common Causes of Bumps on the Tongue
Whitish, enlarged bumps may appear on the back of your tongue due to canker sores. These sores can form anywhere in the mouth and usually clear up within 10 to 14 days. If they cause bumps on the back of the tongue, it may be painful to eat and swallow. Taking over-the-counter pain relievers and gargling with salt water rinses may alleviate some symptoms of canker sores.
Oral thrush is a medical condition that results from an overgrowth of the fungus Candida in the mouth and throat. It may cause white patches on the tongue and other parts of the mouth, as well as difficulty swallowing or slight bleeding. This condition often requires a prescription rinse to clear the fungus completely.
Leukoplakia refers to white patches that may appear on the back of the tongue, the cheeks or the gums. These patches are often noncancerous, painless and heal on their own. They are typically associated with tobacco use and should be monitored if they develop a red border or fail to heal.
Your dentist will diagnose the specific condition causing the bumps on your tongue and refer you to a specialist if necessary.
Cancer and Bumps on the Tongue
Also called warts, squamous cell papillomas are noncancerous bumps that may appear on the tongue and the lining of the mouth. These warts can also appear in other parts of the body and are often attributed to the human papillomavirus (HPV). In rare cases, they can develop into cancer. Your dentist may monitor the warts by taking measurements or oral photos to document their size and locations. If they become large or bothersome, they can be removed surgically.
Although uncommon, bumps on the back of the tongue may be an indication of oral cancer. These bumps may appear white or red and cause pain or bleeding while eating or swallowing. For diagnosis, the bumps may need to be biopsied and a referral to an oncologist might be necessary.
The mouth is a window into the health of the body. It can show signs — including bumps on the back of the tongue — that can indicate other health conditions. If you notice bumps that are abnormally large, spread to other parts of the mouth or last for several weeks, contact your dentist or medical professional for evaluation.