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Geographic tongue

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Sep 7, 2023.

Overview

Geographic tongue is an inflammatory but harmless condition affecting the surface of the tongue. The tongue usually is covered with tiny, pinkish-white bumps called papillae. These papillae are actually fine, hairlike structures. With geographic tongue, patches on the surface of the tongue are missing papillae. These patches are smooth and red, often with slightly raised borders.

This condition is called geographic tongue because the patches make your tongue look like a map. The patches often appear in one area and then move to a different part of the tongue.

Although geographic tongue may look alarming, it does not cause health issues. It's not related to infection or cancer. Geographic tongue sometimes can cause tongue pain and make you more sensitive to certain foods, such as spices, salt and even sweets.

Geographic tongue

Geographic tongue results from the loss of tiny hairlike structures on your tongue's surface. These structures are called papillae. The loss of these papillae appears as smooth, red patches of different shapes and sizes.

Symptoms

Symptoms of geographic tongue may include:

Many people with geographic tongue have no symptoms.

Geographic tongue can continue for days, months or years. The problem often goes away on its own, but it may appear again later.

When to see a doctor

Because most people with geographic tongue don't show symptoms, they won't need treatment. If you have symptoms, they may be related to a fungal infection, so see your doctor or dentist. In some cases, medicine may be prescribed to help ease symptoms.

Causes

The cause of geographic tongue is not known, and there's no way to prevent it. There may be a link between geographic tongue and other conditions, such as psoriasis. This is a skin disease that causes a rash with itchy, scaly patches. But more research is needed to learn about possible connections to other health conditions.

Risk factors

Factors that may increase your risk of geographic tongue include:

Complications

Geographic tongue is harmless, but it can sometimes be uncomfortable. It does not pose a threat to your health, cause long-term complications or raise your risk of major health problems.

This condition can cause anxiety. That's because the appearance of the tongue may be embarrassing, depending on how well the patches can be seen. It also may be hard to believe that nothing is seriously wrong.

Diagnosis

Your physician or dentist usually can diagnose geographic tongue by looking at your tongue and going over your symptoms.

During the exam, your physician or dentist may:

Some symptoms of geographic tongue may look like other conditions, such as oral lichen planus. This condition appears as lacy white patches in the mouth — sometimes with painful sores. So some conditions might need to be ruled out before making a diagnosis.

Treatment

Geographic tongue usually does not need any medical treatment. While geographic tongue sometimes can cause tongue pain, it's a harmless condition.

To manage pain or sensitivity, your doctor may recommend medicines such as:

Because these treatments haven't been studied in great detail, their benefit is not known. Since geographic tongue comes and goes on its own, you may not be able to tell if treatments are making symptoms go away.

Lifestyle and home remedies

Most people with geographic tongue don't experience symptoms. But if you have symptoms, you may reduce pain by staying away from or limiting substances that commonly make sensitive oral tissues feel worse. These substances include spicy or acidic foods or beverages, as well as alcohol and tobacco.

Preparing for an appointment

If you're worried about how your tongue looks, make an appointment with your doctor or dentist.

What you can do

Prepare questions ahead of time to make the most of your appointment. Basic questions to ask include:

What to expect from your doctor

Be prepared to answer these questions:

Preparing and expecting questions will help you make the most of your time.

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