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Red Dots on Tongue - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Updated on June 24, 2022
Khushbu Gopalakrishnan Headshot
Written by Jennifer Huizen
Medically Reviewed by Khushbu Gopalakrishnan

Why Do I Have Red Spots on My Tongue?

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 if irritated. 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 develop 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, or 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 that have a yellow or white center with a red border. 

Other Symptoms

People with canker sores may also have sores elsewhere in their mouth, not just their tongue. Burning or tingling sensations a few days before the sore appears is 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 body.

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, and 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 tongue may look smoother than normal.

Treatment

There’s no specific treatment for glossitis. But some habits or medications may help reduce symptoms or prevent it 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 cancer or oral cancer, but tobacco use, heavy alcohol consumption, and HPV all 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 

Determining the Best Treatment

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. 

In many cases, there is no specific treatment for red dots on the tongue, and they heal naturally over time. 

But taking antibiotics can treat spots caused by a bacterial infection. If the spots are severe or causing problems, a dentist can surgically remove them. 

If the sores are related to a systemic issue such as HIV/AIDS, a doctor may prescribe medications to limit symptoms and slow disease progression. 

People with tongue sores related to mouth cancer may undergo surgery, radiation therapy, and/or chemotherapy.

Home Remedies 

Several at-home remedies may reduce pain and discomfort associated with red dots or bumps on the tongue. Common home remedies include:1

  • Drinking cold liquids
  • Using salt water mouth rinses
  • Eating soft foods like yogurt or ice cream
  • Using antiseptic or anesthetic (numbing) mouthwashes
  • Sucking on an ice cube

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 different 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 they are severe, cause difficulties with eating or breathing, are very painful, spread over time, or are accompanied by other symptoms, talk to a doctor. 

Also talk to a doctor or dentist about any spots or growths on the tongue that don’t heal naturally within a few days to weeks.

Last updated on June 24, 2022
9 Sources Cited
Last updated on June 24, 2022
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).
  1. DermNet NZ. “Transient lingual papillitis.
  2. Mayo Clinic. “Canker sore.
  3. DermNet NZ. “Squamous cell papilloma.
  4. Mouth Healthy. “Sexually transmitted disease and your mouth.
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Scarlet fever: All you need to know.
  6. Mayo Clinic. “HIV/AIDS.
  7. Mount Sinai. “Glossitis.
  8. Merck Manual. “Tongue discomfort.
  9. Mayo Clinic. “Mouth Cancer.
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