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The tongue’s surface 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.
Many conditions, mostly harmless, can cause red dots on the tongue.
These common tongue conditions include:
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:
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.
Canker sores are painful, small spots with a yellow or white center and a red border.
People with canker sores may also have sores elsewhere in their mouths, not just on their tongues. It’s common to experience burning or tingling sensations in the affected area a few days before the sores appear.
Most canker sores resolve on their own after a few days to weeks. OTC treatments like gels or ointments can also help you with the condition.
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.
People with HPV may have growths, such as warts, elsewhere on their bodies.
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.
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.
People with syphilis, scarlet fever, and HIV/AIDS may also experience:
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.
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.
Many people with ELP also experience:
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.
Glossitis causes the tongue to become red, painful, and swollen. It is also sometimes called a strawberry tongue.
It may occur due to:
People with glossitis may also experience trouble speaking, chewing, or swallowing, and their tongues may look smoother than normal.
There’s no specific treatment for glossitis. But some habits or medications may help reduce symptoms or prevent them from developing. These include:
Anything that injures the tongue, like biting it or rubbing it against sharp teeth, can cause red dots or bumps.
Depending on the type of injury, pain, swelling, or discoloration elsewhere in the mouth may develop.
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.
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.
People with mouth cancer may also experience:
People with tongue cancer may undergo surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation therapy.
Oral thrush is an infection caused by a type of fungus called Candida. It can cause white, patchy spots to develop on the tongue and inside the mouth. In some cases, you may have red dots on the tongue due to the infection.
People with oral thrush may also experience:
Oral thrush can be treated with antifungal medications. The medication comes in different forms – such as topical creams, tablets, and lozenges. Lifestyle changes may also be recommended to prevent the infection from coming back.
In most cases, red dots or bumps on the tongue do not require medical attention. But talk to a doctor if:
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.
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 is essential for reducing the risk of infection and other issues that can cause red spots on the tongue. Brushing twice daily, flossing daily, and using an antiseptic mouthwash can help keep the mouth clean and healthy.
A salt water rinse may help reduce inflammation and pain associated with red spots on the tongue. To make a saltwater 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 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.
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.
Remember that the best home remedy for red spots on your tongue will depend on its cause. If your red spots persist or interfere with your daily activities, see your doctor immediately.
There is often no way to prevent red dots or bumps on the tongue from forming. However, you can reduce their risk of developing by:
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.
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