Geographic Tongue

November 08, 2015

Geographic Tongue
Geographic tongue is characterized by patches with raised borders that look like islands.
Geographic tongue, also known as benign migratory glossitis, is a harmless condition that impacts the surface of your tongue.

This harmless condition, also known as benign migratory glossitis, affects about 1% to 3% of the population and can show up at any age. This condition directly impacts the surface of your tongue. A normal, healthy tongue is pink and covered in small, fingerlike bumps (papillae). With geographic tongue, patches of the tongue are missing papillae. The results are smooth portions of the tongue (lesions) with raised borders that look like islands, giving the surface of your tongue a map-like appearance. Often these lesions or patches will heal in one area, but migrate to a different part of the tongue. The sight can be alarming, but geographic tongue does not cause any health problems. 


What are the Symptoms of Geographic Tongue?

You should watch for smooth, red patches on parts of the tongue with raised white or light-colored borders. These patches might vary in size, shape, and color. They also tend to migrate, and can come and go quickly, or take months. One in ten people with geographic tongue report sensitivity or discomfort associated with hot, spicy, or acidic food, smoking, and certain types of toothpaste. Because many with geographic tongue do not experience any symptoms, you might not even know you have the condition until you see a dentist or health care provider. It can persist for months or even years.


Causes of Geographic Tongue

The exact cause of these irregular patches is largely unknown and the condition is still poorly understood. This condition is not contagious, but it does tend to run in families, so genetics might contribute. It is also seen more frequently in people with fissured tongue (cracks on the top and sides of tongue) and people with psoriasis (chronic skin condition caused by overactive immune system). It does affect both males and females, and though it can appear at any age, it does seem to be more prominent in adults. Beyond that, there is little known about the cause.


When Should You See a Dentist?

This is a minor, and only sometimes uncomfortable condition that often seems to resolve on its own. However, lesions in the mouth and tongue might indicate a more serious condition. As such, it is important to see your dentist or health care provider early on to rule out a serious problem. Most health care professionals suggest you see a doctor or dentist if you have a lesion that does not resolve in approximately 10 days. You should also seek immediate aid if you start having breathing problems, your tongue becomes severely swollen, or you have problems speaking, chewing, or swallowing. You can also prepare for your appointment by thinking about some questions ahead of time, including:

  1. When did signs of the condition first appear?
  2. Have the lesions changed in location?
  3. Have the lesions changed in appearance?
  4. Do you experience any discomfort or pain?
  5. Does anything trigger pain, like spicy foods?
  6. Have you had any other symptoms?



In most cases, because of the precise appearance of the condition, the dentist does not need to run a biopsy test. Instead the provider will likely use a lighted instrument to simply examine your tongue. He or she will also check for signs of infection and rule out other conditions.


Treatment Options for Geographic Tongue

Most pain or discomfort associated with geographic tongue will resolve without treatment. However, if you do have ongoing discomfort, sometimes medication can help. The dentist or doctor might prescribe pain relievers, anti-inflammatories, or anesthetic mouth rinses to help bring your relief. They might also recommend you limit your use of tobacco and the consumption of hot, spicy, salty, and acidic foods. Otherwise, no other treatment is required. 


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