When it comes to oral hygiene, many people prioritize their teeth and gums and forget about their tongues. But like other parts of the mouth, the tongue performs crucial functions in tasting, swallowing, and speaking, so it’s essential to keep it healthy.
Poor oral hygiene practices or trauma to the tongue can lead to mild and severe health conditions, the most common being transient lingual papillitis (TLP). In fact, research¹ shows that more than half of the population experiences TLP at some point. While it usually goes away without treatment, some people experience recurring TLP (or TLP that keeps coming back).
In this article, we’ll look at the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for TLP.
A healthy tongue has many small bumps, or papillae, on its surface. These are generally pink and relatively flat and aren’t very noticeable. TLP is characterized by inflammation of these normal bumps — some people refer to these inflamed, noticeable bumps as “lie bumps.”
According to superstition, people get lie bumps after telling a lie. That’s untrue, of course, but the term has endured.
During a TLP outbreak, the tongue becomes covered in red or white bumps that may look like pimples. The bumps can appear on one small section of the tongue’s surface or span across a much larger area. Often, lie bumps cover the area near the tip of the tongue.
TLP is an inflammatory condition. Researchers² aren’t sure why some people develop the condition while others don’t, but certain factors seem to trigger TLP, including:
Highly acidic or spicy foods
Trauma (burning your tongue with hot food, for example)
Chronic irritation of the tongue (which may be caused by an irregular tooth edge or braces)
Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol
TLP may occur as early as three years old but can affect people of any age.
The first signs of TLP are the characteristic red or white bumps appearing on the tongue’s surface. Other symptoms include:
Pain (even when not drinking or eating)
TLP is uncomfortable, and symptoms can last hours or days. If you experience more severe symptoms, such as swollen glands or a fever, you may have a more serious condition known as eruptive lingual papillitis³ (ELP). While its symptoms are similar, ELP differs from TLP in that:
A virus causes it
It can persist for up to two weeks
In most cases, TLP will go away within a few hours to a few days and doesn’t require treatment. However, if you have symptoms of TLP that don’t resolve within a week, it's a good idea to see your dentist or doctor. In most cases, a medical professional can diagnose TLP based on symptoms, history of prior TLP, and a physical exam, which will help them rule out more severe conditions.
If your doctor can’t definitively diagnose TLP based on their examination, they may recommend a biopsy. During this test, the doctor numbs the affected area using a local anesthetic and removes a small sample of tissue for testing to ensure the inflamed bumps aren’t harmful.
There’s no specific medical treatment for TLP, but various home remedies and over-the-counter medicines may help. If you have TLP and it’s causing discomfort, consider the following remedies:
Saltwater is among the oldest and most effective ways to combat minor oral health issues. Besides its bacteria-fighting capabilities, a saltwater rinse can help with pain and inflammation. You can make a saltwater rinse at home by stirring a teaspoon of salt into a glass of warm water — simply swish the mixture around in your mouth for about 30 seconds before spitting it out.
Proper oral hygiene habits are essential in keeping your mouth clean, and consistently practicing good habits may help prevent or eliminate lie bumps. Healthy habits include:
Brushing your teeth at least two times daily (with fluoride toothpaste).
Flossing once daily to clean spaces your toothbrush can’t reach.
Brushing your tongue or using a tongue scraper to remove food residue and bacteria.
There may be an additional benefit to using mouthwash. Look for one that has the American Dental Association (ADA) Seal of Acceptance. Without this certification, mouthwash may make your mouth smell nice but doesn’t necessarily offer any benefits for your oral health.
Spicy and acidic foods can irritate the tongue and trigger TLP. If you notice lie bumps on your tongue after eating spicy or acidic foods, consider cutting them from your diet. During a TLP outbreak, soothing foods like yogurt and ice cream may help reduce inflammation and swelling.
If your TLP doesn’t resolve after a week of employing home remedies, your next step may be a trip to the dentist, who can recommend treatment options such as:
If your TLP is exceptionally painful, your dentist may give you mouthwash containing anesthetic medication to reduce discomfort while you wait for the condition to heal.
Topical corticosteroids reduce inflammation and irritation. They have anti-inflammatory properties and can suppress an overactive immune response. Your dentist may recommend corticosteroids if you have a lot of pain or swelling.
Transient lingual papillitis is an inflammatory condition that causes small, red, or white bumps on the tongue’s surface. Researchers don’t know what causes TLP; however, spicy foods, trauma, stress, and poor oral hygiene habits may act as triggers for outbreaks.
If you notice lie bumps on your tongue, rinse your mouth with warm salt water, use mouthwash, and avoid foods that may aggravate your condition. If the bumps don’t resolve after a week or so of consistently practicing home remedies, visit a doctor or dentist to explore treatment options and rule out more serious causes.
In most people, TLP will resolve without treatment within two to four days. However, in more persistent cases, lie bumps may last up to ten days.
The quickest way to get rid of TLP is to gargle with a saltwater solution, avoid irritating foods, and practice good oral hygiene. Soothing foods and beverages can also improve comfort.
Lie bumps are usually temporary but may come back, particularly if you’re exposed to triggers again. It's not uncommon to see these bumps reappear a few weeks or months after treatment.
Other conditions can cause sores on the tongue, including syphilis, canker sores, mouth cancer, scarlet fever, glossitis, traumatic fibroma, or lymphoepithelial cysts. See your doctor or dentist rule out other causes if your tongue bumps persist beyond ten days or cause severe discomfort.
Transient lingual papillitis | DermNet
Transient lingual papillitis | Osmosis
Mouthrinse (mouthwash) | American Dental Association