Possible Causes of Spots on the Tongue

The human tongue has lots of tiny spots on it for taste and sensation. These spots are not usually very noticeable. However, if spots are an unusual color, cause irritation, or other symptoms accompany them, they can be the sign of a major health problem.

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Healthy Tongue Spots

There are four kinds of healthy spots or bumps that appear on the tongue. The medical term for these spots is papillae. Papillae assist people to sense and taste with the tongue. Nerves that send messages about flavor to the brain are linked to taste buds. Papillae are also vital for giving information about temperature, speaking and chewing food.

  • Fungiform papillae: These are small spots that appear all over the tongue. A person usually has 200 to 400 of these, at the tip and edges of the tongue. Each of these papillae contains three to five taste buds.
  • Circumvallate papillae: These spotsare bigger spots that appear at the back of the tongue. They are faintly raised and are arranged in a ‘v’ pattern. A person usually has 7 to 12, with each one containing thousands of taste buds.
  • Foliate papillaeappear on the back of the tongue and at the edges. A person usually has around 20, with each one containing hundreds of taste buds.
  • Filiform papillae: These are found in the center and at the front of the tongue. They do not contain taste buds.

Causes of unusual spots on the tongue

Tongue spots that are uncommon in size, color, or appearance and are usually accompanied by other symptoms could point to a health problem. Causes of unusual tongue spots include:

  1. Canker sores

Canker sores are small ulcers that appear white or yellow and can appear on the tongue, inside of the mouth, and on the lips. The cause of canker sores is not clear. Canker sores usually go away without treatment. Directly applying an over-the-counter (OTC) medication, such as benzocaine, to the ulcer can ease pain.

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Canker sores can be a sign of an underlying health condition in some cases. If a person has other symptoms, they may wish to seek medical advice. These symptoms may appear on any part of the body. They include; stomach pain, rash, and fever.

  1. Oral yeast infection

A yeast infection or oral thrush can affect the mouth and tongue. If a person scrapes off a white patch on the tongue, they will notice a red, inflamed patch underneath.

Symptoms include:

  • white spots, bumps, or patches on the inside surfaces of the mouth
  • a bad taste
  • pain or soreness inside the mouth

Oral thrush results from an overgrowth of yeast that occurs naturally in the mouth. Certain groups of people are more at risk of developing the infection, including people with HIV, diabetes, people receiving chemotherapy and newborn babies.

  1. Tongue cancer

Tongue cancer is a form of head and neck cancer. A person chances of developing tongue cancer can increase if they smoke, drink alcohol, or are infected the human papillomavirus (HPV). A bump or spot on the side of the tongue, or a red patch on the tongue, is usually harmless. But if it does not go away, it could be a symptom of tongue cancer. Other symptoms include:

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  • pain when swallowing
  • a sore throat that lasts for a long time
  • numbness in the mouth
  1. Lie bumps

Lie bumps or transient lingual papillitis is a small red or white bumps on the tongue. These bumps are enlarged or inflamed papillae. Lie bumps can affect one or several papillae. Lie bumps commonly result from injury to the tongue, for example, when a person accidentally bites their tongue when chewing or talking.

Symptoms can include:

  • a burning or itching sensation
  • pain
  • greater sensitivity to heat

Also, lie bumps can be caused by viruses, psychological stress, and poor nutrition. Lie bumps usually heal without treatment within a week. If treatment is necessary, a person can try a medicated mouthwash or antihistamines to help reduce the effect of swelling. To quicken the healing of the tongue, a person should avoid spicy foods and hot food.

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Tongue burn

Blisters can appear on tongue if a person burns their tongue on hot food or liquid. These can appear as small, fluid-filled spots on the tongue. Blisters may heal more quickly if they stay unbroken. A person can promote healing and avoid blisters from breaking by taking care when brushing the teeth, eating and drinking.

Geographic tongue

The medical term for geographic tongue is benign migratory glossitis. Geographic tongue causes inflammation on the sides or top of the tongue and regularly appears as a blotch or spot of redness surrounded by a white edge. Doctors are not certain about what causes geographic tongue, but it may be related to diabetes, stress, allergies.

Scarlet fever

Scarlet fever is a bacterial infection in the nose and throat. One of the key symptoms is a red, bumpy tongue that people often refer to as “strawberry tongue.” Other symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Red, blotchy rash that usually starts on the chest and stomach
  • stomach pains

Doctors usually treat scarlet fever with antibiotics. Following antibiotic treatment, scarlet fever usually goes away in around one week, but the rash can last for longer.

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When to see a doctor

People should consider seeing a dentist or doctor if

  • spots that bleed or become more painful
  • unusual spots on the tongue last longer than a week

A doctor will usually ask about any other symptoms, when the spots appeared, and any pain a person is feeling. This information can help a doctor give a diagnosis and offer further advice or treatment.

Prevention tips

When a good oral hygiene is practiced, it can help to prevent oral yeast infections and may help the tongue to heal after an injury or illness. To keep the mouth, teeth, and tongue healthy, dentists usually recommend:

  • flossing daily
  • brushing teeth twice daily
  • avoiding too much sugar


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