Taste buds are the very thing you can thank for allowing you to appreciate the sweetness of your ice cream or the savoriness of your teriyaki chicken.
But one day, you notice small raised areas that become swollen and painful – a swollen taste bud on the back of your tongue. Most people have had these annoying bumps at some point in their lives, and fortunately, in most cases, it is not a serious problem. There are many ways to make them disappear or at least significantly reduce the level of discomfort they cause.
What You Should Know About Your Taste Buds
There are five basic tastes identified so far – sweet, salty, bitter, sour and savory (also called umami). Contrary to a popular taste-map, all of them can be perceived, more or less equally, in all areas of the tongue.
To understand how taste buds work, let’s find out more about their anatomy. First of all, those reddish bumps you see on your tongue are not your taste buds. Those round projections are called lingual papillae – many of them have taste buds buried in their surface tissues.
There are four different types of papillae:
- Filiform papillae are the most numerous ones, fine, long and V-shaped. Unlike the other types of papillae, filiform papillae do not have taste buds which makes their purpose strictly mechanical. They give your tongue its texture and touch sensitivity.
- Fungiform papillae are, as the name suggests, slightly mushroom shaped. They are located mainly at the tip and along the edges of your tongue’s upper surface, with filiform papillae scattered around them. Each of these papillae contains three to five taste buds which enables them to distinguish the five basic tastes.
- Circumvallate papillae are very large and dome-shaped, easily seen at the base of the tongue. There are only about a dozen of these on most people.
- Foliate papillae look like vertical folds clustered on the sides of your tongue. An average person has around 20 of them.
You might not know that taste buds are not located on the tongue only – there are taste-detecting cells in many different areas of your oral cavity. Those cells can be found everywhere from your hard palate to your throat and even in your stomach.
If you take a peek inside the taste buds themselves you will find sensory cells (also called taste receptor cells). Various nerve fibers connected to these sensory cells are enabling you to register different tastes by sending a message to your brain.
Not everyone has the same number of taste buds. You can have between 2,000 and 10,000 of them, anything above 10,000 makes you a “supertaster.”
Bearing the above in mind, it’s not hard to see that swollen-taste-bud is a swollen papilla. But since the first expression has become commonly accepted – we decided to put it in the article title and will continue using it in the following text.
Typical Symptoms You May Experience
- Painful bumps on your tongue which may appear red
- Pain, discomfort or burning sensation, especially when eating hot, acidic or spicy foods
- Uneven texture of the tongue
- Loss of sense of taste
- Tongue discoloration
Causes and Additional Symptoms Of Swollen Papillae On Back Of Your Tongue
The reasons why you may get – inflamed, irritated or swollen bumps on your tongue – are numerous. Read on to learn more but don’t use this to self-diagnose, that is something you should always leave to your doctor.
1. Foods and Drinks
Spicy foods like chili peppers, highly acidic foods such as citruses, pineapples, kiwis and sugary foods can all be very irritating to your taste buds and leave them sore, swollen or inflamed.
Foods and beverages that are too hot can burn your taste buds or even cause your entire tongue to swell up.
2. Injuries, Traumas, and Irritations
Tongue biting, rubbing, scraping, cuts, burns, tongue piercings and other traumas can cause your taste buds to swell up, some of them can even lead to tongue infections.
Aggressive astringents, found in some mouthwashes, can irritate your tongue and your taste buds.
3. Allergic Reactions
You may be allergic to certain chemicals from your food, which may cause your taste buds to swell up. You can even be allergic to some particles in the air which can irritate your taste buds once they make their way into your mouth.
Allergic reaction to some medications can cause this issue as well.
4. Oral Infections and STDs
Presence of infection in your mouth can irritate your taste buds and predispose them to bacteria causing the infection.
- Oral thrush (oral yeast infection) – is a mouth or throat infection caused by Candida yeasts.
Oral thrush is a common cause of enlarged taste buds, during which small white spots may appear on your tongue. Imbalance of the good bacteria (often caused by antibiotics), reduced immunity, dry mouth and smoking are some of the factors that can lead to oral thrush.
- A sore throat caused by enterovirus – this virus, also known as hand-foot-mouth virus or coxsackievirus, has painful blisters (sores) and red sore throat as classic symptoms. What you may not know is that in some cases it can cause blisters on your tongue, throat or even lips.
- Scarlet fever– this bacterial illness, mostly occurring in children, may cause red bumps and a white coating on the tongue.
- HIV – oral problems are not a rare occurrence for those living with HIV. More than a third of the people affected by this virus have oral conditions resulting from their weakened immune system.
5. Nutritional deficiencies
Malnutrition and some vitamin deficiencies can affect your oral structure.
Among other symptoms, vitamin B (complex) deficiency, can lead to the burning sensation on your tongue, oral ulcers, and sore throat.
Vitamin B-12 (riboflavin) causes ariboflavinosis the symptoms of which are tongue inflammation and dryness, cracked lips and burning sensation in your oral cavity.
Iron deficiency symptoms can be very similar to those of the vitamin B.
6. Canker sores
These little, shallow ulcers usually appear in the mouth. They can make simple activities such as eating or talking extremely uncomfortable. Many people will eventually develop painful sores on their tongues.
You probably experienced burning or tingling sensation on the exact spot where they would later develop.
The exact cause of most canker sores has not yet been identified. Some factors that can trigger or worsen them include stress, tissue injury, citrus fruits, sharp tooth, braces and ill-fitting dentures.
7. Stress or depression
Research shows that there is almost no system in your body that cannot be affected by stress. If chronic stress goes unreleased it will suppress your body’s immunity and, manifest itself as a health problem at some point.
Stress, depression, and anxiety are all accompanied by hormonal disbalances that can have swollen taste buds among their symptoms.
8. Diseases such as Transient Lingual Papillitis (TLP) and Sjörgen’s Syndrome (SS)
Transient Lingual Papillitis
This condition is a common type of inflammatory hyperplasia of one or multiple of your taste buds.
The localized variant of TLP manifests itself with swelling of one to several of your taste buds, on an isolated area of the tongue – especially the tip, side borders and dorsal surface.
The generalized variant of TLP involves a large number of swollen taste buds. During its course a child usually gets infected first, transmitting the disease to the rest of the family members.
Both variants have an acute onset and in both cases – enlarged taste buds may vary in color from normal to whitish or yellow. Some of the symptoms include burning, pain, sensitivity to hot foods, tingling or itching and eating difficulties. In the case of TLP with the familial transmission, fever, hypersalivation, and enlargement of your lymph nodes may happen.
Sjögren’s syndrome (SS)
Sjögren’s syndrome is a chronic autoimmune disease that targets salivary and lacrimal glands, which makes dry mouth and eyes this syndrome’s most common symptoms. Your saliva has many antibacterial and antifungal properties. The loss of it due to SS causes harmful effects to your oral health, such as tooth decay and oral fungal infections. Be aware of any red or discolored lesions, bumps, and spots.
If you decide to see a doctor, s/he will in most cases just visually inspect your tongue paying attention to the changes in color, size or texture. Or, if the reason behind you swollen taste buds is an allergy, your doctor will perform necessary allergy tests.
If your doctor suspects of some disease, you might need additional examinations – oral thrush, for example, is usually diagnosed by observing the lesions but in some cases, microscopic examination or tongue scraping may be needed. If the infection spreads to the throat area a throat swab or biopsy (if candida leukoplakia is suspected) may be taken.
Foods and drinks – Most swollen taste buds heal naturally within a week without any treatment. Avoiding foods that usually cause this problem can help you with the pain.
Injuries, traumas and irritations – small tongue injuries usually heal on their own. Your doctor can recommend you antiseptic cleanser or hydrogen peroxide rinses.
Allergies – It is recommended to avoid additional contact with whatever you think is causing the problem.
Oral Thrush – Your doctor may prescribe some antifungal medications which may come in different forms – tablets, lozenges, or a liquid that you swallow after thoroughly swishing it in your mouth.
A sore throat – When it comes to treatment, you may be glad to hear that primary focus is on your comfort. Ice cream and other cold foods can be very effective in relieving your symptoms. Just avoid overly sweet foods and acidic foods such as cranberry juice.
HIV – Most oral problems, linked to HIV, are in fact treatable. It would be best to talk to your doctor about possible treatments that may work for you.
Nutritional deficiencies – Treatment of malnutrition will vary from person to person depending on how malnourished s/he is. You should make dietary changes that will ensure you get enough nutrients. A nutritionist can help you with that. If these changes are not enough – your doctor may advise you to take additional nutrients, usually in the form of supplements.
Canker sores – Canker sores usually heal by themselves within 1-2 weeks. If you have already run out of patience and want to get rid of your canker sores ASAP, then dental laser may be an option. Patients treated with dental laser reported almost complete and immediate relief of their symptoms.
Stress or depression – Some lifestyle modifications, like more physical activity, getting enough sleep, healthy diet and even changing the way of thinking are natural ways of fighting stress and depression. You can also consult your doctor about medical options to treat your state.
Transient lingual papillitis – People with TLP are usually advised to avoid tongue friction and irritation as well as irritating foods. If your pain or feeding difficulties are persistent, an oral rinsing solution may be prescribed by your doctor. Or if your mouth is too dry your doctor may prescribe you an oral moisturizer.
Sjörgen’s syndrome – SS is unfortunately not curable, but many people manage their dry mouth symptoms just by sipping water on a more regular basis. Some saliva stimulators are sugar-free gum or a sucking candy. But other people need prescription medications, such as pilocarpine (Salagen) or cevimeline (Evoxac) which increase the production of saliva.
Other things you can do to relieve the symptoms of swollen taste buds on back on your tongue:
- You can apply a little bit of plain cold yogurt to your affected tongue area. Yogurt will basically act as a probiotic for the outside part of your tongue by establishing a better balance of the bacteria that are already present. And because of its soothing properties, it can neutralize some of the spicy foods.
- Ice cubes – the cold will help with numbing your tongue and easing the discomfort.
- Warm water and salt mixture – half a teaspoon of salt mixed with a cup of warm water used three to four times a day can soothe and even heal your swollen taste buds or other mouth sores.
- Try brushing your teeth with a soft-bristled brush and don’t forget to floss daily. Good dental hygiene is highly important in the prevention of oral cavity diseases and infections.
- You can apply a bit of honey directly on your swollen taste bud, using a cotton swab. You can also make a mouth rinse using honey and warm water.
- Discontinue further consumption of foods and drinks that irritate your tongue while your problem lasts. Some things to exclude are alcohol, highly acidic, hot and spicy foods and drinks. But, if swollen taste buds a recurring problem in your life, it is best to avoid these irritants in the long run.
Things NOT to do:
- Please do not try to “scratch” your tongue no matter how intense your itch might be – this will only make things worse by further irritating your taste buds.
- Some people may feel an urge to pop or cut the bumps on their tongue, by doing that you will cause additional trauma to your tongue.
- No antibiotic will cure an infection caused by a virus. Do not take antibiotics or any other medications without a consultation with your doctor.
- Do not smoke or at least try to reduce it.