Geographic tongue is an inflammatory but harmless condition affecting the surface of your tongue. The tongue is normally covered with tiny, pinkish-white bumps (papillae), which are actually short, fine, hairlike projections. With geographic tongue, patches on the surface of the tongue are missing papillae and appear as smooth, red "islands," often with slightly raised borders.
These patches (lesions) give the tongue a maplike, or geographic, appearance. The lesions often heal in one area and then move (migrate) to a different part of your tongue. Geographic tongue is also known as benign migratory glossitis.
Although geographic tongue may look alarming, it doesn't cause health problems and isn't associated with infection or cancer. Geographic tongue can sometimes cause tongue discomfort and increased sensitivity to certain substances, such as spices, salt and even sweets.
Geographic tongue results from the loss of tiny hairlike projections (papillae) on your tongue's surface. This papillae loss appears as smooth, red patches of varying shapes and sizes.
Signs and 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 resolves on its own but may appear again at a later time.
Geographic tongue is a minor — although sometimes uncomfortable — condition. However, lesions on the tongue may indicate other more-serious conditions of the tongue or diseases affecting the body in general. If you have lesions on the tongue that don't resolve within 10 days, see your doctor or dentist.
The cause of geographic tongue is unknown, and there's no way to prevent the condition. There may be a link between geographic tongue and psoriasis and between geographic tongue and lichen planus. But more research is needed to better understand possible connections.
Studies of factors that may be associated with an increased risk of geographic tongue have produced mixed results. Factors that are likely associated with an increased risk include:
Geographic tongue is a benign condition. It doesn't pose a threat to your health, cause long-term complications or increase your risk of major health problems.
However, anxiety about the condition is fairly common because:
Your physician or dentist can usually make a diagnosis of geographic tongue based on an examination of your tongue and your signs and symptoms.
During the exam, your physician or dentist may:
Geographic tongue typically doesn't require any medical treatment. Although geographic tongue can sometimes cause tongue discomfort, it's otherwise a harmless condition.
To manage discomfort or sensitivity, your doctor may recommend medications such as:
Because these treatments haven't been studied rigorously, their benefit is uncertain. Since the condition resolves on its own and has an unpredictable course, you may not be able to tell if the symptomatic treatments are actually working.
You may reduce discomfort associated with geographic tongue by avoiding or limiting substances that commonly aggravate sensitive oral tissues, such as spicy or acidic foods or beverages, as well as alcohol and tobacco.
If you're concerned about the appearance of your tongue, make an appointment with your dentist.
Prepare questions ahead of time to make the most of your appointment. Basic questions to ask include:
Be prepared to answer the following questions: