What is Geographic Tongue? - Causes, Treatment and Symptoms

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Geographic tongue is a benign oral inflammatory condition that causes an irregular, ‘map-like’ pattern on the tongue. People with geographic tongue develop smooth, red patches on the tongue that are missing the tiny bumps (papillae) you usually see on the surface of the tongue.

These red patches are surrounded by bumpier, white borders on the topside or side of the tongue (though in rare circumstances, geographic tongue can affect other areas of the mouth).

Other than the missing layers of papillae on your tongue, geographic tongue is largely symptomless – though around 1 in 10 people with the condition feel sensitivity when eating acidic things, like spicy food or citrus. These symptoms may last for a few months, before subsiding. In this case, a doctor can prescribe treatment options, which we’ll explore further in this article.

Geographic tongue affects around 1% - 3% of people globally, and despite a potentially alarming appearance, it’s harmless and non-contagious. Geographic tongue has a similar appearance to another condition called fissured tongue, which causes uneven grooves on the tongue, so it’s wise to speak to your doctor for a proper diagnosis.

Geographic tongue in children is more uncommon, though the condition can be developed at any age and is twice more likely to affect women than men.

What Causes Geographic Tongue?

Doctors don’t have all the answers on geographic tongue causes and what causes geographic tongue to flare up - though it commonly runs in families, so genetics will likely play a part in your chances of being affected by this condition. A flare up of geographic tongue symptoms may also occur due to the following risk factors:

  • Posariasis

There is thought to be a link between geographic tongue and having psoriasis, an inflammatory skin condition causing itchiness and scaly rashes.

  • Hormonal Surges

There have been cases of geographic tongue in women who were taking birth control pills, which could mean the associated hormonal surges can heighten the risk of developing the condition.

  • Allergies

If you suffer regularly from flair ups of eczema or hay fever, this could increase the chances of developing geographic tongue.

  • Diabetes

There may be a link between developing geographic tongue and having diabetes, especially type 1 diabetes.

  • Spicy or Acidic Food

Some people with geographic tongue will feel discomfort or sensitivity when consuming spicy or acidic foods and drinks. Cigarette smoke or toothpaste might also trigger the symptoms. If this is the case, you may want to try a toothpaste that has been specially designed for sensitive mouths, such as Oral-B Sensitivity & Gum Calm Original Toothpaste.

  • Vitamin Deficiencies

People who are low on iron, zinc, folic acid, or B vitamins may be more at risk of developing geographic tongue.

  • Asthma

There have been studies around a link between asthma and geographic tongue, which both can flair up due to surroundings.

  • Stress

Emotional stress and anxiety are possible risk factors for developing geographic tongue.

Geographic Tongue Symptoms

While some people don’t notice any symptoms at all, the most common sign of geographic tongue to look for is the appearance of a ‘map-like’, irregular pattern on your tongue. Though unusual, this is one of the milder geographic symptoms – others may report pain, discomfort, or soreness on the tongue. Keep reading for a breakdown of the main geographic tongue symptoms.

  • Red Patches on Tongue

The red patches can feel smooth, raw, and sensitive compared to other areas of the tongue. 

  • Absence of Papillaey

Papillae are the tiny bumps that cover your tongue and help you to grip and chew food. One of the main symptoms of geographic tongue is the absence of papillae in certain areas around the tongue, which will usually look red, smooth, and patchy.

  • Patches in mouth and frequent changes in their location

Some people with geographic tongue develop patches in other areas of the mouth, such as inside the cheeks, on the roof of the mouth, or even on the gums.

  • Discomfort while eating

Around 1 in 10 patients report geographic tongue pain, including discomfort or pain on the tongue when eating spicy, acidic, or very sweet foods. You may notice a mild burning, stinging, or soreness on the geographic tongue red patches. This soreness on tongue should subside after some time, though it may flare up again in future.

Geographic Tongue Treatment

As it is a benign, harmless condition, geographic tongue requires no surgical treatment. While there is no known cure for geographic tongue, doctors can prescribe medication to manage the soreness or discomfort when eating.

The medicine your doctor prescribes for your geographic tongue symptoms may vary depending on other factors, but this could include:

  • Topical anesthetic agents

  • Antihistamine and anesthetic mouthwash     

  • Topical steroids

  • Topical tacrolimus.

If you’re wondering how to treat geographic tongue, the answer is: speak with your doctor! As well as officially diagnosing the condition, they will be able to help you to find the best remedy for your geographic tongue symptoms that match up with your lifestyle.

While you’re waiting for your appointment, you can also try to eliminate any triggers of geographic tongue from your daily habits. This might be avoiding spicy or acidic foods or choosing a high-quality toothpaste that has been designed for sensitive mouths.

FAQs

How long does geographic tongue last for?

The symptoms of geographic tongue typically last for a few months, depending on the person – though repeat flare ups may return at another point, too.

What causes geographic tongue?

Geographic tongue is likely caused by genetics, though emotional stress, allergies, diabetes, and hormones may also play a part in developing the condition.

Sources:

https://www.webmd.com/oral-health/guide/geographic-tongue

https://www.dentalhealth.org/geographic-tongue

https://dermnetnz.org/topics/geographic-tongue/