Are your taste buds on tip or back of the tongue swollen? This problem may be caused by inflammation, allergic reaction, herpes, yeast infection and even cancer. Here is a detailed evidence based overview of causes, symptoms and medical and home treatment options for inflamed taste buds.
Taste buds are small papillae like structures found on the upper surface of the tongue. They are too small to be seen separately and they are present on the surface of tongue in large numbers. As the name suggests, these papillae help in detecting the taste and flavor of the food you eat. Taste buds enable you to sense whether the food is sweet, salty, bitter, sour or pungent and transmit the message via the nerve impulse of facial nerve to the brain.
Taste buds have tiny taste receptors. These are present on tiny structures called lingual papillae located on upper part of the tongue, upper part of esophagus, soft palate, cheeks and epiglottis. Their job is to detect five basic taste elements; which are sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. The combination of these helps us sense different flavors.
It is interesting to note that taste buds detecting specific flavors are distributed on different parts of the tongue (1).
Taste buds that identify sweet taste are located on the front of the tongue.
Taste buds that perceive bitter taste are found on the back of the tongue.
Taste buds that sense salty taste are located on the sides of the tongue.
Taste buds that perceive sour taste are situated on the lateral side of the tongue.
Taste buds are present in only three of the four lingual papillae i.e. fungiform, circumvallate, and foliate papillae while they are not present on the filiform papillae.
Swollen taste buds are bigger, inflamed or enlarged taste buds which are characterized by swollen or enlarged fungiform, foliate and circumvallate papillae.
The swelling could appear on one side of tongue, on the back of tongue, on the tip of the tongue or on soft palate, cheeks or the other parts that have them.
This is how swollen taste buds look like:
What are the causes of swollen taste buds?
There can possibly be many causative factors behind swollen, painful, inflamed and irritated taste buds. The factors will have an effect on taste buds present on your tongue and other areas as well. The main causes are:
Transient lingual papillitis
In this condition, taste buds may swell to appear as white, pimple-like bumps commonly known as lie bumps (2). Taste buds become swollen and painful (3). Swollen taste buds in transient lingual papillitis are a result of inflammation and irritation of fungiform papillae that house your taste buds.
Whilst suffering from transient lingual papillitis, if you examine your oral cavity in the mirror you will notice taste buds appear white and quite large. This is due to the inflammation that takes place as a result of distress to the fungiform papillae. Because this condition is painful, your first impulse may be to run your tongue across your teeth for pain relief. This is not a good idea as you may exacerbate overall pain and irritation, despite the temporary relief.
No fixed single cause can be attributed to transient lingual papillitis, however, people who eat high acidic fruits and vegetables as well as processed sugary food and drinks suffer from it more often. Another factor contributing to transient lingual papillitis is injury caused by cutting or scratching of the sensitive and delicate fungiform papillae. Gastrointestinal disturbances and stress may also contribute to transient lingual papillae. This health condition is not contagious and is notcaused by fungal or bacterial infections.
Sexually transmitted diseases such as herpes or HPV, thrush or yeast infection
Enlarged, swollen and painful taste buds are also be caused by sexually transmitted diseases that manifest symptoms in the oral cavity (4). Herpes simplex type 1 (HSV-1) is a viral STD that may cause cold sores in your oral cavity and trigger inflammation and swelling of taste buds which are often confused as canker sores. Canker sores may lead to swollen taste buds, but are not contagious.
HPV can also cause swelling of tasting buds. SteadyHealth lists that a white coating or yellow tongue with sore taste buds can indicate oral HPV. Upon scraping off the white coating, taste buds begin to bleed.
Yeast infections or oral thrush may also be a causative factor behind inflamed, distended taste receptors and buds. If you have plaque or a white patch on the tongue and around the oral cavity that can easily be wiped off, then it might be a symptom that you are suffering from infection of candida fungus.
Syphilis is also among the sexually transmitted diseases that can cause swelling and irritation of taste buds.
Another one of these STDs is oral gonorrhea that may cause swollen taste buds at the back of the tongue. It can be identified by symptoms such as white or yellowish plaque on tongue.
Allergic reaction on the tongue
Being allergic to certain food items may cause swelling of taste buds (5). Acidic foods can also lead to inflammation and distension of taste buds. Some common examples include lemons, citrus fruits, seafood and sauces.
Allergy can be caused by some food items, certain medications, insect bites and bee stings. In the case of allergy to food or bee stings, you may have swollen throat including swollen taste buds.
Allergic reactions trigger swelling of taste buds because activity of white blood cells is stimulated. This increased activity of white blood cells may cause inflammation of the tongue and lead to swollen taste buds.
Vitamin deficiency (vitamin C and B complex)
Vitamin deficiency may result in a sore tongue and swollen taste buds. Vitamin B complex and C help maintain health of oral cavity (6). If you are deficient in these nutrients, you are likely have a swollen tongue and consequently, enlarged taste buds. Swollen taste buds and sore tongue may be symptoms of scurvy.
Swollen taste buds after eating acidic, salty and spicy foods
Eating foods that are too spicy or salty or acidic foods can lead to swelling of taste buds. This is because acidic foods such as citrus fruits, pineapples, lemons etc. irritate the tongue and cause it to swell. Foods that are commonly known to cause swelling of tongue include ginger, citrus fruits, condiments, grapefruit etc.
Eating acidic foods not only cause swelling of taste buds but also make them red and itchy. You may have an irksome, sometimes painful itchy feeling on the tongue and may want to relieve it by scraping your tongue against your teeth. This is not advised because you are likely to worsen the swollen taste buds even more and cause bleeding.
Hot beverages cause inflammation of taste buds
Hot drinks and food items with high temperatures usually irritate the lingual papillae. The situation is worse when the hot food items or beverages are spicy. Hot beverages burn and irritate your taste buds and cause inflammation. Hot spicy foods not only adversely affect your taste buds but also the lymph nodes and glands in your oral cavity and may even cause cancer (7)
Swollen taste buds after drinking and chewing tobacco, cinnamon gum
Drinking alcohol and chewing tobacco may lead to swelling of taste buds on supper surface of tongue and back of oral cavity. Insecticides, tobacco and alcohol are known to have strong chemical contents that inflame and irritate the taste buds (8).
Cinnamon gum has also been known to cause a burning tongue and inflammation of taste buds (9). The Cinnamon Big Red Gum, especially, has been observed to cause a tongue sore and swelling of taste buds.
Infection after getting your tongue pierced can lead to symptoms such as swelling, inflammation, redness, bleeding and discharge of fluid, discoloration of the tongue and general pain. Swollen taste buds at the end of tongue or on tip of tongue may become inflamed and enlarged.
Tongue piercing can also trigger a tingling sensation in tongue and a burning sensation on the sides of the tongue and around the oral cavity. For most individuals with an infected tongue piercing, the swollen taste buds don’t disappear until the tongue is healed completely.
Swollen taste bud receptors, blisters on tongue, tongue ulcers and sores on tongue are all said to be warning signs of oral cancer in some cases (10).
Cancer cells usually spread and annihilate normal cells in the mouth and on the tongue, including lingual papillae. The most common type of oral cancer that may cause swollen taste buds is called squamous cell carcinoma.
Tongue rubbing, cracked tongue, biting, injuries
Cracks and fissures on tongue, geographic tongue or bruised tongue may lead to swollen taste buds. Cracks on tongue may exacerbate the swelling. Taste buds located in center of tongue will swell if you press the tongue against them or if you brush it with a toothbrush with rough bristles and vigorous strokes. Physical traumas such as burns, cuts, gashes, bites and scrapes can easily cause the taste buds to become irritated and swollen.
Metallic taste in mouth, delicate tongue, loss of taste and fissured or geographic tongue may appear as physical distress on the tongue even though they are not. However, they are also linked with swelling of taste buds (11).
Rubbing your tongue or attempting to pop bumps or pimples on tongue can also be a source of physical trauma that will result in injury, irritation and swelling of taste buds.
Dry mouth and throat
Dry mouth and throat can be a causative factor behind swelling of taste buds at the back of tongue. The burning mouth or burning tongue disorder is usually distinguished by the absence of lubrication in the mouth, which leaves the tongue rough and dry.
Friction caused by rubbing dry tongue against teeth is likely to cause burning sensations and lead to swelling and inflammation of taste buds.
According to the United States Library of Medicine National Institute of Health, lupus has been determined as one of the autoimmune disorders that affect taste buds of the tongue, affect taste function and displays symptoms such as swelling and inflammation (12). Besides lupus, another autoimmune disease Sjögren’s syndrome may also cause swollen taste buds.
Sore throat, with a cold and strep throat
Swelling of taste buds located at back of tongue or all over surface of tongue is linked with sore throat. During flu or cold, you are likely to suffer from sinus problems, runny nose, blocked ears, clogged or blocked nose, fever, headaches and swollen taste buds (15).
Strep throat, acute sinusitis, common cold and tonsillitis are all known to be linked with the swelling and irritation of taste buds.
Adderall side effects
Adderall is a psychostimulant drug belonging to phenethylamine class given to patients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy.
Patients who take this drug have displayed side effects including swollen glands, inflammation of mouth and tongue, swollen taste buds and salivary glands (16).
Hormonal imbalance, stress, anxiety and depression
Hormonal disturbances in the body due to emotional distress such as depression, stress and anxiety are also believed to cause swelling of tongue and taste buds (17). During depression or mental stress, the body’s balance of hormones is disturbed, which in turn takes its toll on the immune system, making the tongue vulnerable to infections.
Hypothyroidism caused by hormonal disturbances and imbalance may cause thickened lips, swollen eyelids and swollen tongue taste buds.
Swollen taste buds from sugar or sweets
Swelling of taste buds may be a result of irritation from sugar or sweets. While irritation in most people is caused by changing toothpaste or mouthwash brands, eating food items high in sugar, can cause inflammation, irritation and swelling if taste buds.
GERD or regurgitated acid released from the gastrointestinal tract or stomach can be too strong for the mouth and irritate the tongue. Mostly the back of the tongue is affected, causing swelling of taste buds at the back of lingual surface more than at tips and sides. If acid reflux is severe, you may end up with swollen taste buds scattered all over the tongue (18).
Symptoms of swollen or inflamed taste buds
Lingual papillae will appear elongated and distended with a rough surface and may be inflamed or irritated. Other than the swelling , other symptoms you may have include discoloration of tongue surface, sore throat, loss of taste, redness, pain and discomfort, white sores or red bumps on your tongue, etc. depending the condition that caused them.
For proper treatment of swollen taste buds, you must first ascertain the condition that caused them. Symptoms of common conditions that cause swollen taste buds are as follows:
Transient lingual papillitis
Symptoms of transient lingual papillitis are as follows (19):
Acyclovir: The most conventional antiviral medication for herpes is acyclovir. It has been available in topical form as an ointment since 1982 and sold for oral use in form of a pill since 1985. Acyclovir has been shown to be highly tolerated in patients even who have used it continuously daily for as long as ten years.
Valacyclovir: A relatively new medication, valacyclovir, essentially uses acyclovir as its active ingredient. This drug delivers acyclovir more competently so that the body absorbs much of the drug, which has the advantage of taking the drug in fewer doses during the day.
Famciclovir: Famciclovir has penciclovir as its active ingredient to prevent HSV from replicating. Like valacyclovir, it is absorbed well, remains for a longer time in the body, and can be taken in less frequent doses than acyclovir.
Antiviral medication is usually prescribed for patients having a first episode of herpes, but they can be used for recurring episodes as well. There are two kinds of treatment routines: episodic treatment and suppressive therapy.
Treatment of thrush depends on severity and underlying cause of infection.
If thrush is brought about by something reversible, such as smoking, use of certain antibiotics, poorly-fitting dentures, or ill controlled diabetes, these factors must be rectified as part of therapy.
Babies, toddlers, and children with thrush usually do not require treatment. If thrush in children persists for more than a few weeks, the child's pediatrician may prescribe use of antifungal Nystatin (Mycostatin, Nystex, Nilstax) drops. If a mild crush of thrush is detected in an adult, the doctor may prescribe an antifungal mouthwash containing nystatin or lozenges (Clotrimazole or mycelex) for short-term use.
Oravig is an antifungal medicine that consists of a pill placed in the upper oral region and dissolved in the mouth to treat thrush. For more persistent cases of thrush or if someone has other reasons for a compromised immune system, he or she may need stronger medications, such as fluconazole (Diflucan) or itraconazole (Sporanox). These drugs usually work better than Nizoral. For severe or resistant thrush, doctors may also prescribe amphotericin B.
Vitamin B or C deficiency
Swollen taste buds may also be caused by vitamin B complex or vitamin C deficiency.
To overcome this deficiency, you need to alter your diet or take supplements according to advice of your doctor.
Scurvy can be easily and effectively treated with dietary supplements to overcome nutritional deficiencies in vitamin C. Changes in your lifestyle can also lower your risk of developing scurvy, such as decreasing alcohol intake, formulating a well-balanced diet plan that includes a variety of fresh fruits and healthy vegetables, quitting smoking, and always taking all medicines and supplements as prescribed.
Oral cancer can be treated through chemotherapy, surgery and radiation.
Non steroidal anti inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen, diclofenac and naproxen.
Protect yourself from harsh sunlight
Immunosuppresants such as azatheoprine, methotrexate and cyclophosphamide.
Home remedies for swollen taste buds
Gargle with warm saltwater solution to obtain relief from swollen taste buds (32). Swish around a simple saline solution having antibacterial properties to help relieve swollen taste buds. It will also soothe inflammation, pain and tenderness.
Mix half teaspoon of salt in a glass of lukewarm water to prepare your saline solution.
Swish around a mouthful of the saline solution for 30 seconds in your mouth and then gently spit it out.
Gargle saline solution after every meal to eliminate any debris in your teeth or on your tongue that may cause irritation.
Repeat this method three to four times a day until swelling of taste buds disappears.
Do not use saline solution meant for contact lenses as a mouth rinse.
Drink cool beverages
Drink cold or cool beverages and avoid drinking hot, scalding liquids. There is some evidence that drinking cold beverages can help relieve swollen taste buds and decrease any associated inflammation. You can drink cold beverages as a regular part of your daily hydration routine or as needed to help reduce the swelling (33).
Keep yourself hydrated and drink at least eight cups of water a day if you are a female and ten cups if you are a man. People who are very active and pregnant women need up to 16 cups of water a day.
Use ice to relieve swelling
Suck ice chips to alleviate swelling and inflammation of taste buds. Sucking on ice chips, an ice cube, or an ice pop may help provide extra relief from swelling and pain. The cold may numb pain and decrease any swelling (34).
As the ice melts, it will help you stay hydrated and reduce the risk of your tongue drying out, which may exacerbate discomfort from swelling.
You can place ice cubes or ice chips directly on the swollen taste buds of your tongue for an easy application of the cold ice.
Repeat this method as often as necessary.
Eat soothing foods
Eat soothing foods to solve your problem. Some doctors suggest eating soothing foods such as yogurt. These foods help relieve any pain or discomfort you may experience due to swollen taste buds. Try and eat foods that are cooled to boost soothing effect.
Dairy products such as yogurt, milk and ice cream may help reduce your swelling and associated discomfort.
Other foods like popsicles or puddings may also help.
Avoid food and fizzy drinks that increase inflammation. Some foods and products may aggravate any pain or swelling you have with taste buds. Avoid eating or drinking any substance that may make the swelling worse, such as tobacco or spicy foods.
Acidic foods and drinks, such as orange juice, tomatoes, soda drinks and coffee can further irritate your taste buds. Also avoid pepper, spicy condiments, cinnamon and mint. Avoid smoking or chewing tobacco, which can exacerbate your inflammation.
If you suspect that your swollen taste buds are a result of a food allergy, exclude this food from your diet to see if it resolves the condition.
Maintain oral hygiene
Take particular care of your oral hygiene. Floss and brush your teeth two times every day, especially after meals. Having debris stuck in your oral cavity and teeth promotes an environment that may promote infection. If you don’t have a toothbrush, chewing a piece of gum can help. Visit the dentist regularly and get frequent dental checkups. This routine will help preserve the health of your teeth, oral cavity, and gums. A healthy oral cavity will help prevent swollen taste buds.
Lozenges or sprays
Use throat sprays or lozenges. Anesthetic sprays or throat sprays that contain local pain killers may help reduce pain caused by swollen taste buds. You can purchase throat sprays and lozenges easily at many pharmacies and large retailers.
Use throat lozenges or sprays every three to four hours. If you doctor or the product packaging has any other instructions, follow them.
Keep the throat lozenge in your mouth until it completely dissolves. Don't swallow or chew it whole. This will numb your throat and make swallowing difficult.
Rinse your mouth with an antiseptic or anaesthetic mouthwash to relieve pain and discomfort caused by taste buds. Gargle an anesthetic or antiseptic mouthwash that has benzydamine or chlorhexidine in it. These chemicals will help cure infections and will also help allay pain and swelling (35).
Benzydamine is an effective pain killer.
Chlorhexidine is a bactericidal agent.
Swish ten to fifteen mls of antiseptic mouthwash around your mouth for a few seconds and then spit it out.
Hydrogen peroxide and baking soda
Baking soda has the capability to counterbalance the sourness of the mouth and it also provides a soothing effect to your tongue and mouth. Hydrogen peroxide is an anti-bacterial agent that helps to abolish the bacteria in our oral cavity. These properties eliminate the bacteria in oral cavity and help the process of healing (36).
Add same amounts of hydrogen peroxide and baking soda. Mix them gently together so that it forms a paste.
Apply this paste on swollen taste buds using a cotton swab. You will immediately notice a decrease in pain.
But do not eat or drink anything after this process for at least half an hour. You can also mix same amounts of water and three percent hydrogen peroxide in equal proportion, then apply it gently over the affected areas using cotton or a clean cotton swab.
Rinse with tea tree oil
Tea tree oil can reduce swelling of taste buds (37). Mix a few drops of this natural oil with warm water and swish this mixture around in your mouth. This mixture is very effective in reducing swelling that is caused by germs and bacteria in your oral cavity.
Honey has highly effective healing and anti-bacterial properties and is therefore a great remedy for swollen taste buds. You can gargle with warm honey water mixture in your mouth to relieve swelling.
Pepper, Ginger and Garlic
Make a pepper, ginger, garlic solution and use it three to four times a day to cure swollen taste buds. Apply this paste on the affected areas and try not to swallow it for a minute or so.
Before you attempt to treat swollen taste buds always follow these instructions:
Do not take any medicine without consultation with your doctor as many drugs have unpleasant adverse reactions and side effects.
Inform your doctor about your complete, detailed health history, any diseases you might be suffering from or any drugs that you already take so that he can prescribe you medication accordingly.
Do not eat or drink anything for about half an hour after using hydrogen peroxide and baking soda mixture for swollen taste buds.
While using throat lozenges for swollen taste buds, allow it to completely dissolve in your mouth. Do not chew or swallow it whole otherwise it will numb your throat and make swallowing difficult.
Be careful while gargling tea tree oil and water mixture because excess tea tree oil may cause hallucinations.
When should I contact a doctor?
Leave the swollen taste buds alone for some time initially. In most cases, you won’t need any medical attention or treatment for swollen taste buds. The condition usually resolves and they disappear themselves within a few hours or days.
If you experience any severe pain or discomfort due to your swollen taste buds or they don't seem to be going away, then you should consult a doctor as they might be a warning sign of some serious disease.
Things to remember
Swollen taste buds are usually harmless and resolve on their own. However if they persist for a long time and cause pain and discomfort, you are advised to consult your doctor to find out if there is any serious underlying cause such as an STD, autoimmune disorder or oral cancer. Only after determination of underlying problem, your swollen taste buds can be treated.
To alleviate pain and discomfort caused by swollen taste buds, avoid drinking hot beverages and eating spicy foods. Quit smoking and maintain a proper oral hygiene routine. Brush and floss your teeth regularly and visit the dentist at least once every month. But do not brush your teeth too hard or it will further aggravate the swelling.
Eat soothing foods such as ice cream and yogurt will help to reduce pain and inflammation of swollen taste buds.
Popular home remedies applied to cure swollen taste buds are salt water solution, hydrogen peroxide and baking soda mixture and sucking on ice chips. The ice helps sooth pain and reduces inflammation.
You can also use antiseptic lozenges and mouthwash to cure swollen taste buds. These products are easily available in market. They are both antiseptic and analgesic. They simultaneously kill bacteria, make the environment of your oral cavity unsuitable for them and also help decrease any pain and discomfort caused by swollen taste buds.
Constantly exposing the tongue to toxic substances present in alcoholic beverages and tobacco smoke increases danger of your taste buds to swell up. Reduce your alcohol intake to a suitable amount and avoid smoking or chewing tobacco.
Here is a video with more information on swollen taste buds and treatment options.