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Geographic tongue, also known as benign migratory glossitis, is an inflammatory condition that occurs on the surface of the tongue. It’s a benign disorder that affects up to 3% of the population.1
Most people who have it are asymptomatic, though some may be sensitive to spicy or acidic foods. Affected tongues also have red, smooth patches in different areas, similar to a map. The patches vary in size and are lined with a thin, white border.
Lesions may appear on other parts of the mouth, including the gums, cheeks, soft palate, and under the tongue. Such lesions are known as geographic stomatitis or erythema migrans.
Signs and symptoms of geographic tongue may include:
Most of the time, people with geographic tongue will not notice any symptoms. The signs of the lesions may be visible on the tongue without any discernible impact. Geographic tongue should not interfere with daily life.
The cause of geographic tongue is unknown. There are many theories about what factors might influence the condition’s development. No conclusive evidence exists for any of them, although there are some factors that might play a role in its development:3
A deficiency of certain nutrients, such as vitamin B, may play a role in geographic tongue. However, researchers have found that vitamin and mineral supplements do not ease the symptoms or appearance of the condition.4
Geographic tongue coincides with other conditions in some people. These conditions include food and environmental allergies, hay fever, asthma, diabetes, psoriasis, and eczema.5
Some consider geographic tongue an oral form of psoriasis. The relationship between geographic tongue and these issues remains unclear.
Your habits could influence whether you develop geographic tongue. Irritation from eating hot or spicy foods could be a contributory factor. Alcohol may also play a role. However, geographic tongue is less common in smokers.6
Oral contraceptives, lithium, and antihypertensives may coincide with developing geographic tongue. Currently, though, there is no conclusive evidence describing their relationship.7
Emotional stress has been proposed as a possible cause of geographic tongue. However, the evidence is inconclusive.
While the cause of geographic tongue is unknown, several factors may increase your risk of developing it:
Predicting who will experience geographic tongue is difficult. These risk factors may make you more likely to develop it, but they do not guarantee it.
Geographic tongue is a benign condition with no serious implications. It most often affects the appearance but not the health of the tongue. Occasionally, geographic tongue can result in a burning sensation.
There are no known reports of geographic tongue causing cancer. Geographic tongue is also not contagious, so you can’t spread it to other people.
Some people may find geographic tongue uncomfortable. Consult your doctor if you experience pain or discomfort.
Also, contact your doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms:
These indicate a more severe problem that needs evaluation.
Your healthcare provider can make a diagnosis by looking at your tongue. Diagnosis rarely requires additional tests. In some cases, your provider might perform a biopsy to determine a definitive diagnosis.
There is no cure for geographic tongue. Certain treatments can decrease any discomfort or inflammation that results from the condition. These treatments include:
You may also wish to avoid spicy or acidic foods and alcohol if these exacerbate your discomfort. Good oral hygiene can also help.
The symptoms and appearance of geographic tongue can last a few days to several months or years. Often, geographic tongue resolves spontaneously on its own in one area only to have another lesion appear in a different location. The lesions may disappear for some time before reoccurring later.
There’s no way to predict how long an episode of geographic tongue will last or what causes it. It is a lifelong condition with periodic flare-ups for most people.
Geographic tongue may last a long time or come and go in cycles. It may flare up during emotional stress or infection, but it has no long-term health complications. You can manage any symptoms with treatments from your doctor.
Geographic tongue is a benign condition that affects the tongue’s surface. It manifests as red patches of absent papillae with a white border. It is named for its map-like appearance and the migration of the lesions around the tongue and mouth.
Some people with geographic tongue may experience mild discomfort. The condition’s cause is still unknown, but it has no serious health implications.
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