Geographic tongue is an often painless condition where spots or patches appear on the top and sides of the tongue.

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

In some cases, geographic tongue spots can appear in other areas of the mouth.

Fast facts on geographic tongue:

  • The patches on the tongue are caused by an absence of papillae or tiny bumps in the affected area.
  • The patches are smooth and red. In some cases, the edges may appear to be slightly raised.
  • Geographic tongue is not a common condition and tends to affect adults approaching midlife.
  • Often, the smooth patches will heal in one area of the tongue then reappear on another area.

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A dentist or doctor may discover the condition.

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. There are no illnesses or cancers associated with it. Though some people may experience discomfort, pain, or burning these sensations are almost exclusively the result of contacting spicy or acidic foods.

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

In some cases, geographic tongue may look more like a painful ulcer. Despite the appearance, these cases of geographic tongue may not even 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. Please be aware that some of the images may be quite graphic:

There is currently no known cause of geographic tongue. Researchers have begun to look into connections to other conditions, such as psoriasis. However, more research is needed to confirm any connections.

Scientists have identified two potential risk factors for geographic tongue. One is fissured tongue, a condition where the tongue has grooves all along the surface. Another potential risk factor is genetics, as the condition may be passed down from one generation to the next.

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

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Anesthetic and antihistamine mouthwash may be recommended as treatments 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 suffer no ill effects.

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
  • 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 judgement by others. Additionally, a person may worry that there is something more seriously wrong.

If a person notices smooth, red patches on the tongue, they should seek a diagnosis from a doctor or dentist. Though geographic tongue may be benign with no associated complications, some more serious conditions may be mistaken for geographic tongue

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.