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Updated on January 16, 2023
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Red Dots on Tongue - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

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The surface of the tongue contains tiny bumps called fungiform papillae. These small raised bumps have taste buds and temperature receptors. They also give the tongue a rough texture to help us eat.

Fungiform papillae are normally the same color as the rest of the tongue, but they can become red from irritation. Some conditions can also cause red dots or red bumps on the tongue.

8 Causes of Red Dots on Tongue

Many conditions, mostly harmless, can cause red dots on the tongue.

These common tongue conditions include:

1. Lie Bumps (Transient Lingual Papillitis)

People with lie bumps have one or more painful, inflamed papillae, often near the tip of the tongue. About 50% of the population develops lie bumps at some point. 

The cause of lie bumps is unknown. But they may be triggered by:

  • Stress
  • Injury
  • Irritation
  • Gastrointestinal disruptions
  • Eating specific foods
  • Hormone fluctuations

Treatment

Most lie bumps resolve on their own after 1 to 2 days, though they may recur weeks to years later. In some cases, applying topical steroids to the bumps may help make them less painful.

2. Canker Sores (Aphthous Ulcers)

Canker sores are painful, small spots with a yellow or white center and a red border. 

Other Symptoms

People with canker sores may also have sores elsewhere in their mouths, not just on their tongues. Burning or tingling sensations a few days before the sore appears are also common.

Treatment

Most canker sores resolve on their own after a few days to weeks.

3. Squamous Papilloma

People with squamous papilloma develop soft, painless, finger-like projections that sit on a stem or stalk and are pink, red, or white. The human papillomavirus (HPV) causes squamous papillomas. 

Other Symptoms

People with HPV may have growths, such as warts, elsewhere on their bodies.

Treatment

Most people don’t require treatment for squamous papillomas. But the growths may be surgically removed or burnt off using lasers if they are large or interfere with eating, talking, or breathing.

4. Certain Medical Conditions

Several medical conditions, particularly syphilis, scarlet fever, and HIV, can cause red dots or spots on the tongue.  

Syphilis tends to cause painful red sores on the tip of the tongue. Scarlet fever often causes the tongue to become red and bumpy. Many people with acute HIV/AIDS also develop painful sores in the mouth. 

Other Symptoms

People with syphilis, scarlet fever, and HIV/AIDS may also experience:

  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Vomiting and pain in the abdomen
  • A red rash
  • Sores on the lips, gums, and back of the mouth
  • Headache, muscle aches, and joint pain
  • Weight loss
  • Swollen lymph nodes

Treatment

Bacterial infections cause syphilis and scarlet fever; you’ll need to take antibiotics to cure the infection. There is no cure for HIV/AIDS, though some medications may help control symptoms and prevent the progression of the disease.

5. Eruptive Lingual Papillitis (ELP)

People with eruptive lingual papillitis (ELP) develop enlarged, inflamed bumps on the tongue. 

This condition tends to impact young children and their family members the most. Researchers don’t know why eruptive lingual papillitis (ELP) occurs, but it may be related to a virus people catch during childhood. Some people with COVID-19 also develop ELP.

Other Symptoms

Many people with ELP also experience:

  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Decreased appetite
  • Excess saliva production

Treatment

Most symptoms of ELP resolve on their own within 1 week or 2 to 15 days. Symptoms may also recur 1 to 2 months later.

6. Glossitis 

Glossitis causes the tongue to become red, painful, and swollen. It is also sometimes called strawberry tongue. 

It may occur due to:

  • Allergic reactions
  • Dry mouth
  • Infections
  • Injury
  • Irritation from using tobacco products, eating hot or spicy foods, drinking alcohol, etc.
  • Hormones
  • Vitamin deficiencies

Other Symptoms

People with glossitis may also experience trouble speaking, chewing, or swallowing, and their tongues may look smoother than normal.

Treatment

There’s no specific treatment for glossitis. But some habits or medications may help reduce symptoms or prevent them from developing. These include:

  • Practicing good oral hygiene
  • Making dietary changes or taking supplements
  • Avoiding irritants
  • Taking antibiotics

7. Trauma

Anything that injures the tongue, like biting it or rubbing it against sharp teeth, can cause red dots or bumps.

Other Symptoms

Depending on the type of injury, pain, swelling, or discoloration elsewhere in the mouth may develop. 

Treatment

Most minor tongue injuries heal on their own. But you may need stitches or surgery in severe cases. You may also need to have rough teeth smoothed out, dentures re-made or repaired, or tooth cavities filled to prevent further injuries. 

8. Mouth (Oral) Cancer

Mouth cancer can cause sores, reddish patches, and abnormal growths in the mouth and on the tongue. There is no specific known cause of tongue or oral cancer, but tobacco use, heavy alcohol consumption, and HPV increase the risk of developing it.

Other Symptoms

People with mouth cancer may also experience:

  • Oral pain 
  • Loose teeth
  • Difficulty swallowing or pain when swallowing
  • White patches in the mouth

Treatment

People with tongue cancer may undergo surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation therapy.

When to See a Doctor

In most cases, red dots or bumps on the tongue do not require medical attention. But talk to a doctor if:

  • Tongue inflammation is severe or worsening
  • You have trouble breathing, eating, chewing, talking, or swallowing
  • Symptoms last for more than a week
  • Other symptoms are present, such as fever or inflamed lymph nodes
  • You can’t control your pain
  • Sores or dots recur
  • Bumps or dots are large or spread with time 

A doctor will determine the best treatment for your tongue dots or sores based on what is causing them. To diagnose tongue sores, a doctor or dentist may examine the spots, perform a biopsy, or take swabs to test for bacterial infections. 

There is no specific treatment for red dots on the tongue; they heal naturally over time. 

Home Remedies for Red Spots on Tongue

Several at-home remedies may reduce pain and discomfort associated with red dots or bumps on the tongue. Common home remedies include:

Good Oral Hygiene

Good oral hygiene is essential for reducing the risk of infection and other issues that can cause red spots on the tongue. Brushing twice a day, flossing daily, and using an antiseptic mouthwash can help keep the mouth clean and healthy.

Salt Water Rinse

A salt water rinse may help reduce inflammation and pain associated with red spots on the tongue. To make a salt water rinse, mix a teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water. Swish the mixture around the mouth for 30 seconds and then spit it out.

Drinking Cold Liquids

Drinking cold liquids can help reduce pain and inflammation associated with red spots on the tongue. Cold liquids may also help numb the area and provide temporary relief.

Eating Soft Foods

Soft foods, such as mashed potatoes or yogurt, can help reduce pain and discomfort associated with red spots on the tongue. They are less likely to irritate the area and can provide relief.

Can You Prevent Tongue Discoloration?

There is often no way to prevent red dots or bumps on the tongue from forming. But some things may reduce their risk of developing, such as:

  • Practicing good oral hygiene
  • Avoiding irritants like using tobacco products, alcohol, hot or spicy foods, salty or acidic foods and drinks, and rough foods like nuts
  • Maintaining a healthy, balanced diet or taking supplements
  • Treating dry mouth
  • Avoiding burning the tongue
  • Trying not to rub the teeth with the tongue
  • Fixing rough teeth or poorly fitting dentures
  • Reducing or managing stress
  • Practicing safe sex

Summary

Many factors can cause red dots, spots, or growths on the tongue, most of which are harmless. In most cases, red dots on the tongue heal on their own within a few days to weeks. But if you experience severe symptoms, talk to a doctor.

Last updated on January 16, 2023
5 Sources Cited
Last updated on January 16, 2023
All NewMouth content is medically reviewed and fact-checked by a licensed dentist or orthodontist to ensure the information is factual, current, and relevant.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only cite from current scientific research, such as scholarly articles, dentistry textbooks, government agencies, and medical journals. This also includes information provided by the American Dental Association (ADA), the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
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