Quick: Look at your tongue. Those bumps? Those are called papillae. Most of those papillae contain taste buds. According to Britannica, your tongue has 2,000 to 8,000 taste buds.
And, just as you guessed, these taste buds can get swollen.
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Oftentimes people don't even know they have swollen taste buds until they have a reason to look into their own mouths, Michelle Robin Yagoda, MD, an otolaryngologist (and taste bud expert) with Northwell Health in New York City, tells LIVESTRONG.com. (Such as when you go for a dental cleaning, get a fever blister or canker sore or someone else in your family is having an oral issue, prompting you to check yourself.)
For some people, what they find is alarming. "Many people come in to the office saying 'look, I have this thing on my tongue and I'm worried that it's tongue cancer,'" Dr. Yagoda says.
See something? Here's what might be going on — and when to say something to your doc.
1. It’s Just How Your Taste Buds Look
What you might be seeing is the look of completely normal taste buds.
There are different types of papillae. One is the foliate papillae, which are located in the back of your tongue in an inverted V-shape, Dr. Yagoda says. These are larger and rounder than your other buds, and you can plainly see them if you peer at your tongue in the mirror.
"Being able to see these taste buds is not a big deal, but if they feel funny, then you should get them checked out," she says.
2. Your Tongue Is Irritated
In response to irritation, taste buds may swell.
"The most common causes are spicy or acidic foods," Dr. Yagoda says. It might also happen if you eat something hot in temperature.
Luckily, things should get back to normal shortly, without you having to do anything about it.
"The mucous membranes in the mouth turn over quickly, meaning they shed and grow new ones. The inflammation should be gone in three to four days, max," Dr. Yagoda says.
3. You Have Acid Reflux
Another source of irritation? Acid reflux, particularly if the stomach acid is bubbling back up into your mouth. (This type of tongue irritation from acid reflux would appear on the back of the tongue, Dr. Yagoda says.)
Other symptoms of acid reflux include the following, per the Mayo Clinic:
- Chest pain
- Problems with swallowing, or feeling like there's a lump in your throat
- Retching up food or a sour liquid
- Chronic coughing
- Hoarseness or loss of voice
4. It's Oral Allergy Syndrome
Another culprit she points to: oral allergy syndrome. If you have seasonal allergies, this is a cross-reaction between allergens in pollen and certain foods (like raw fruits and veggies). It also may cause itchiness in the mouth, a scratchy throat or swelling of the lips, mouth, tongue or throat, per the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
Cooking the foods that trigger oral allergies can help tame symptoms.
5. It’s a Dental Problem
Your teeth, too, can chronically scrape and irritate your tongue.
"This can be dangerous over a long period of time. Chronic inflammation in the same location can predispose a person to developing abnormal cells that can become cancerous in the area," Dr. Yagoda says.
If the issue is dental-related, your dentist can take a smoothing drill and easily and painlessly file down a rough tooth in a few minutes, she says.
Poor oral hygiene may also play a role in tongue and taste bud problems. Getting teeth cleaned and removing plaque at the dentist can help, Dr. Yagoda adds. To keep your tongue in tip-top shape, gently brush the surface with a soft-bristled brush, she recommends.
6. It’s a Nutritional Deficiency
"This is why it's so important for your doctor to take your full health history and know if you have anemia or celiac disease or other disorders that cause malabsorption," Dr. Yagoda says. "Underlying medical issues can show up on the tongue."
7. Rarely, It’s Cancer
It's important to have a bump or new growth in the mouth looked at by a doctor. And don't assume that you'd be able to tell that something was cancerous.
"When it comes to cancers of the mouth, oftentimes there's no sensation or pain associated with these growths," Dr. Yagoda says.
People at higher risk for oral cancers include those who smoke and drink alcohol. According to the American Cancer Society, if you're a heavy smoker and drinker, you have 30 times the risk of developing one of these cancers compared to non-smoker teetotalers. (Cigarette smoke also irritates taste buds, for the record.)
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.