Geographic tongue is a chronic, inflammatory condition of the tongue (can also affect other areas of the mouth) affecting approximately 3% of the population. It is characterized by discolored regions of taste buds or sometimes even cracks in the surface of the tongue. Geographic tongue will frequently show up after eating any of a range of exacerbating foods, or during times of stress, illness, or hormonal surges (particularly in women just before menstruating). The name “geographic” comes from the map like shape of the lesion. Fortunately, geographic tongue is a harmless benign condition that will not lead to oral cancer or infection.

Geographic Tongue Symptoms

The hallmark signs of geographic tongue include irregular, smooth, red patches on parts of the tongue (can be on top or the sides). These patches have the following characteristics:

-A white or light-colored outlining border.

-Varying  size, shape, and color patches across the tongue.

-They move from one place to another. May start in one area and then appear in another.

-Come and go or change very quickly  in days, weeks, or months

-Long lasting. Geographic tongue can last up to a year at a time.

-About 10% of all geographic tongue patients may experience mild discomfort or a burning/painful sensation. This sensation is often triggered by sensitivity to cigarette smoke, toothpaste, coffee,or hot, spicy foods.

What Causes Geographic Tongue?

Geographic tongue occurs when parts of the tongue are missing layers of small bumps called papillae. They normally cover the entire upper layer of your tongue. It is unknown why some people lose this papillae. Geographic tongue does tend to run in families so a genetic link is suspected.

Geographic tongue has also been seen more frequently in people with psoriasis and in those with fissured tongue. In fissured tongue, cracks and grooves appear on the tops and sides of the tongue.

Geographic Tongue Treatment

As with any lesion in the mouth, you should see your dentist to ensure the proper diagnosis. In some cases tests may need to be run to rule out something more serious. But usually your symptoms coupled with a visual examination is enough to diagnose geographic tongue.

In most cases, any pain or discomfort will get better without treatment. But for some there are medications that can help relieve the symptoms. These include zinc supplements, mouthrinses with anesthetic, topical corticosteroids (applied directly to the tongue), and over the counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS).

At home self care should include limiting use of tobacco products, choosing toothpaste without extra additives (toothpaste for sensitive teeth works best), avoiding hot, spicy foods, keeping the tongue clean by scraping or brushing daily.

Conclusion

For most people with geographic tongue, it is symptomless. Some people experience anxiety about the appearance of their tongue. Understanding that it is a variation of normal, and nothing serious, may alleviate some of the anxiety. Some habits can help decrease the cosmetic appearance, and some increase it’s intensity and duration. Rest assured that, while different looking, geographic tongue is not contagious, nor is it indicitive of poor health. Geographic tongue need only be understood so that symptoms can be managed to the best of your ability.