Whether it’s sweet, sour, savory, salty, or bitter, your taste buds allow you to enjoy and distinguish among 100,000 different flavors with gusto—a handy skill to have when you’re trying a new recipe or fixing a botched stir-fry.
It’s estimated that adults have between 2,000 and 8,000 taste buds, each containing itty bitty sensory receptors, says Texas-based dentist and oral health educator Ellie Phillips, DDS. When you eat or drink something (or several somethings if it’s happy hour), these receptors pass notes to your brain, where taste is perceived.
Every so often, your taste buds can swell up, seemingly out of nowhere. This is usually because something’s happened to damage them—say, you took a huge sip of super-hot coffee or bit your tongue as you were venting to your work spouse—and your immune system is working hard to repair them, explains Dr. Phillips.
“Swollen taste buds are relatively common, since there are a variety of different conditions that can cause them,” says Abbas Anwar, MD, otolaryngologist (ENT) at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “They often present as tender, red or white bumps that usually appear in the center of back of the tongue, and may also cause a burning sensation when you eat.”
Fortunately, taste buds are typically quick to heal without any intervention, and resolve within a few days to two weeks. But if they remain swollen longer than that, or there’s associated bleeding and growth, you should consider checking in with your doctor, says Dr. Anwar.
What might your bumpy tongue be trying to tell you? Here are the most likely causes of swollen taste buds, according to doctors.
1. Your oral hygiene needs work.
When your brushing and flossing routine is all over the map, bacteria and viruses can get a little too comfortable in your mouth, leading to overgrowth and infection, says Dr. Anwar.
To get your taste buds back on track, experts recommend brushing the top surface of the tongue during your daily teeth cleaning and flossing. (This is particularly important if you have a dry mouth or are a smoker.) For an added layer of protection, cap off your routine with mouthwash.
2. Your mouth is Sahara-dry.
Dry mouth isn’t just a sign of dehydration or a side effect of certain medications (here’s looking at you, blood pressure meds)—other causes include the salivary glands failing to produce enough saliva, and chronic mouth-breathing (like when you’re combatting a stuffy nose).
“Taste buds require a moist environment to function properly, and therefore a dry mouth can cause them to become irritated and swollen,” says Clare Morrison, MD, general practitioner and medical advisor at MedExpress.
Drinking enough H20 is obviously paramount in this situation, but if medication or sluggish salivary glands are the culprit, artificial saliva mouth-sprays are available. As for your stuffy nose, “you can improve nasal ventilation using mentholated candies and steam inhalations with added eucalyptus oil,” says Dr. Morrison.
3. … or your stomach acid likes to travel.
Acid reflux is caused by stomach acid going backwards and up into the esophagus. “Sometimes this acid can make its way to your mouth, which can cause burns on the tongue and swollen taste buds,” says Dr. Anwar. Avoiding foods that can exacerbate reflux is the first step to treat this (think: spicy and fatty foods, coffee, chocolate, soda). Anti-reflux medications are available too, such as omeprazole and lansoprazole, should dietary changes not make much of a difference.
4. An infection could be brewing.
Although rare, taste bud swelling from a viral or bacterial infection can happen. Scarlet fever, an infection that can happen in people with strep throat, is the most notable culprit. Along with swollen tonsils, fever, and rash, the tongue becomes coated and peels. “After that, it becomes bright red and the taste buds swell, giving the tongue an appearance similar to that of a strawberry,” says Dr. Morrison.
Viral infections, such as the cold and flu, typically go away on their own. If your symptoms persist any longer than 10 days, have your doctor run a rapid strep test to see if your infection is bacterial and requires antibiotics.
5. Something really hot (or really cold) caused irritation.
Temperature extremes can damage the taste buds and cause swelling—fortunately, they’ll usually heal within a few days sans treatment. “It’s best to avoid alcohol mouthwashes during this time, as this could make them more sore and inflamed,” says Dr. Morrison, who also recommends drinking plenty of water to prevent bacteria from getting any ideas.
6. Spicy or acidic foods are always on your plate.
Besides making acid reflux that much worse, the chemical irritation from spicy and acidic foods may lead to inflamed, swollen taste buds. The irritation will resolve fairly quickly, so long as the offending food is nixed from your menu, says Dr. Morrison. Drinking milk can help soothe the area in the meantime.
7. You could have transient lingual papillitis (TLP).
An uber-common (and completely harmless) condition, TLP causes inflamed, swollen taste buds that appear as small red or white bumps on the top of the tongue. “The exact cause isn’t known, but it may be related to stress, hormones, or certain foods,” says Dr. Morrison. TLP usually clears up on its own within a few days.
8. Though unlikely, it might be oral cancer.
“Although very rare, oral cancer can sometimes present with swollen taste buds,” says Dr. Anwar. It arises from squamous cells that present as a large bump that bleeds easily—usually, on the side of the tongue—and is more common in smokers and heavy drinkers. If you notice a non-healing ulcer or lump on your tongue and it doesn’t resolve within two weeks, check in with your doctor for a consult.