A woman is smiling and showing a tongue

Geographic Tongue: Causes, Symptoms, and Care

This condition gives your tongue a distinct look that can cause concern when you first experience it. Does geographic tongue lead to health problems? Is it something you need to treat or see a professional about? We've rounded up the answers to the most common questions on the condition and organized them for your convenience.

Geographic Tongue: Causes and Symptoms

Geographic tongue, also known as benign migratory glossitis, causes the surface of your tongue to have an irregular, patch-like appearance. This condition gets its distinct name from the fact the patches can look similar to a geographic map.

If the look of this condition alarms you, first take a deep breath. According to the Mayo Clinic, geographic tongue is benign (harmless) and doesn’t indicate infection or other serious health problems.

Your tongue is covered in small, hair-like structures called papillae that are pink-white in color. Patches of these papillae are missing in those with geographic tongue, creating the look of red “islands” with raised edges. These patches will typically heal on their own and move to a new area of your tongue, which is why the condition is known as migratory glossitis.

Symptoms of geographic tongue typically include:

  • Smooth, asymmetrical, red patches (or lesions) on your tongue
  • Patches often change in size, form, and position over time
  • Discomfort when eating, especially when consuming spicy, hot, or acidic items

Helpful note: Many who have geographic tongue will experience no symptoms.

Do I Need to See a Doctor for Geographic Tongue?

It may reassure you to know that geographic tongue typically does not require treatment as it is benign. This condition can last for anywhere from days to years and often disappear and reappears completely on its own.

Important health reminders if you have geographic tongue:

  • It does not indicate the presence of underlying conditions
  • It does not increase your risk of developing other health problems
  • It will typically heal on its own and is not contagious

It’s important to know if lesions on your tongue are actually caused by geographic tongue. Unexplained lesions could be a sign of other, more serious health conditions. For this reason, it’s a good idea to consult a dental or medical professional if you experience lesions that persist for more than 10 days.

Visit an emergency room or call 911 if you experience difficulty breathing or swallowing, though these symptoms are not known to be caused by geographic tongue.

Caring for Geographic Tongue

Although geographic tongue can’t be prevented, there are steps you can take to decrease discomfort and lower anxiety. We think it's a fantastic idea to prioritize your comfort and engage in activities that reduce your stress.

Top tips when caring for your geographic tongue:

  • Avoid spicy, hot, or acidic food and beverages if they cause pain.
  • Even though there's no magic mouthwash for geographic tongue, consider rinsing with ordinary mouthwash. Avoid any items that cause discomfort. The best mouthwash and oral care products are the ones you will use in your routine!
  • Practice proper dental hygiene to avoid irritation, including using a flossing device once a day and brushing twice daily for two minutes.
  • Take steps to manage your stress and increase your self-image. It may help to remind yourself that the condition is harmless and is not associated with other health concerns.
  • Use over-the-counter solutions as recommended by your doctor. These could include pain relievers, anesthetic or antihistamine mouthrinse, steroid ointments, or vitamin B supplements.

You might experience anxiety if you’re concerned about your tongue’s appearance or are worried it’s the sign of a serious health condition. Rest assured that you will grow more comfortable with its look over time, it’s not contagious, and it does not indicate other health problems.

If you have trouble overcoming stress associated with your condition, considering speaking to a dental or medical professional for reassurance.

Geographic Tongue Risk Factors

The National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences notes that the cause of geographic tongue is unknown. This condition may be linked to psoriasis and lichen planus, though the connection is not well understood.

Doctors estimate that 3% of people suffer from geographic tongue, according to the Cleveland Clinic. People of every age, gender, and ethnicity are susceptible.

Geographic tongue often co-occurs in those with:

  • Family history of the condition
  • Stress
  • Fissured tongue
  • Reactive arthritis (also known as Reiter’s syndrome)
  • Psoriasis
  • Hormonal volatility
  • Vitamin shortages
  • Diabetes, especially type 1
  • Allergies or eczema

It can be challenging to find red patches on your tongue. Find comfort in the fact that dental and medical professionals are ready to help diagnose your problem. If you do experience geographic tongue, remember that it’s benign, requires no treatment, and doesn't lead to other health problems. You're now prepared to care for your geographic tongue by avoiding spicy foods and focusing on reducing your anxiety.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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