Geographic tongue is an often painless condition where spots or patches appear on the top and sides of the tongue. The patches result from a lack of papillae, or tiny bumps, in the affected area.

The irregular patches make the tongue resemble a map, which is where the condition gets its name.

Often, the smooth patches will heal in one area of the tongue, then reappear in another area. In some cases, geographic tongue spots can appear in other areas of the mouth.

Geographic tongue tends to affect middle-aged adults. However, it is not a common condition, and there is no known cause.

This article will look at the symptoms of geographic tongue, how it is diagnosed, and more.

Geographic tongue may go undetected for months or years. Often a dentist or doctor discovers the condition during a routine oral examination.

The condition causes smooth, red, and irregular patches on the top and sides of the tongue. Additional distinguishing features include:

  • patches in more than one area
  • raised border that can be white in color
  • patches of various sizes and shapes
  • patches that develop, heal, and migrate to different parts of the tongue over time
  • patches that change in size over time
  • patches that last up to a year at a time

Additional symptoms may include some mild discomfort or pain. This often happens during contact with foods or other substances. Some potential triggers include:

  • smoking
  • chewing tobacco
  • spicy or acidic foods
  • hot food
  • toothpaste
  • mouthwash

Is it dangerous?

Despite its appearance, geographic tongue is a benign condition. Though some people may experience discomfort, pain, or burning, these sensations are almost exclusively the result of contact with spicy or acidic foods.

There are no cancers associated with geographic tongue. However, in some cases, geographic tongue may be associated with certain other conditions. These include:

Geopraphic tongue may occur alongside these conditions. However, there is no evidence that they cause geographic tongue.

While geographic tongue by itself is not typically a cause for concern, these other conditions may require monitoring or treatment from a doctor.

Geographic tongue shows up as different patterns on different people’s tongues.

In some cases, geographic tongue may resemble a painful ulcer. Despite the appearance, these cases of geographic tongue may not cause discomfort.

In other cases, geographic tongue may exist along with a condition called fissured tongue, which is often easier to see.

Below are some examples of geographic tongue and how it may look.

There is currently no known cause of geographic tongue.

There is evidence suggesting that genetics play a role in geographic tongue. A person is more likely to develop the condition if someone else in their family had it.

Additionally, geographic tongue often occurs alongside fissured tongue, a condition that has a known genetic link.

Some research suggests associations between geographic tongue and other conditions, including:

However, none of these conditions have been confirmed as a cause of geographic tongue, and evidence is still limited. More research is needed to confirm any connections.

In part due to the unknown causes, there is no proven prevention strategy for geographic tongue.

Left untreated, most cases of geographic tongue clear up on their own with no medical intervention. People who do not realize they have it may never be treated, and they may experience no unpleasant symptoms.

Even after being treated, the symptoms of geographic tongue may return after some time. Treatments for geographic tongue include:

  • anesthetic and antihistamine mouthwash
  • oral pain relievers
  • corticosteroid rinses or creams
  • vitamin B and zinc supplements

Treatments are not well-researched. People may not be able to tell if the treatment has an impact on the course of the condition, as geographic tongue tends to clear up without intervention anyway.

Potential complications

There are no major complications associated with geographic tongue. As mentioned above, there are no illnesses or cancers that are known to stem from geographic tongue.

Due to its appearance, geographic tongue may lead some people to experience anxiety or other psychological complications. The anxiety may stem from the fear of negative judgment by others. A person may also worry that there is another issue behind it.

If a person notices smooth, red patches on the tongue, they should talk with a doctor or dentist.

Though geographic tongue may be harmless on its own, some more serious conditions may be mistaken for geographic tongue.

Some limited evidence also suggests that certain systemic conditions, such as psoriasis, may occur alongside geographic tongue. A doctor can provide a diagnosis and rule out other conditions.

If a person experiences pain or burning with geographic tongue, they should see a doctor.

A doctor or dentist may diagnose geographic tongue. This is most commonly done through a simple examination of the tongue and mouth. They may:

  • check for signs of illness, such as swollen glands, fever, or other symptoms
  • look at the tongue under a light
  • poke the tongue to check for unusual-feeling tissue or tenderness
  • ask someone to move their tongue to examine it better

In some cases, a doctor may order additional tests if they suspect the condition is not geographic tongue.

With geographic tongue, a person will live an otherwise normal life.

The appearance of the tongue and mild discomfort are often the biggest concerns a person may have. In most cases, the patches eventually clear with no intervention.

There are no lifestyle changes that the person needs to make, as nothing will help prevent the condition from appearing again in the future. However, they may want to avoid acidic or spicy foods.