Geographic Tongue: Causes, Symptoms, Signs, Treatment

What Is Geographic Tongue?

Geographic tongue is a harmless medical condition in which the surface of the tongue is involved. In a normal and healthy tongue, there are papillae present, which are small, pinkish bumps having hair-like fine projections. What happens in this medical condition is there are patches present on the tongue’s surface, which do not have papillae and these patches are smooth and appear as red “islands” with slightly raised edges. So, due to these lesions/patches, the tongue looks like a map with a geographic appearance; hence the name, Geographic Tongue. These patches tend to heal in one region and then move (migrate) to a different part of the tongue. These patches can occur in other parts of the oral cavity as well. The other names for Geographic tongue are Erythema Migrans (tongue) and Benign Migratory Glossitis.

Geographic Tongue

Geographic tongue may look distressing, but is commonly a harmless condition and is not doesn’t cause other health problems. Geographic tongue also doesn’t lead to any infection or cancer. However, Geographic Tongue may cause some discomfort of the tongue and also may result in an increased sensitivity to some specific substances, such as spicy food and certain toothpastes. Geographic tongue is more common in adults and elderly than kids. It is also more often seen in women than men. Geographic tongue is an annoying medical condition, which can go on for many months or years. The problem usually resolves on its own, however the patches or lesions can reappear again.

Treatment comprises of symptomatic treatment, such as mouth rinses containing anesthetics and corticosteroids. Analgesics are also prescribed for pain relief.

Causes of Geographic Tongue

The exact cause of geographic tongue is not known. Also, there is no known way to prevent the geographic tongue. However, according to research, there may be a relation between psoriasis (chronic skin condition) and geographic tongue, but more studies are needed to better know the relation.

Risk Factors for Geographic Tongue

Factors which increase the risk of geographic tongue includes:

  • Having a family history of geographic tongue increases the risk of getting one.
  • Having another tongue disorder such as fissured tongue also increases the risk of having geographic tongue. In fissured tongue, there are deep grooves or fissures on the tongue’s surface.
  • Adults and elderly tend to suffer more from geographic tongue than children.
  • It is also more often seen in women than men.

Signs & Symptoms for Geographic Tongue

Some of the common signs and symptoms of geographic tongue are stated below:

  • Appearance of irregularly shaped lesions, which are red in color and smooth in texture, on the anterior or lateral side of the tongue.
  • The patches that occur in geographic tongue may have light colored raised edges/borders.
  • There are frequent and constant changes in the size, location and shape of the lesions in geographic tongue, as they migrate from one area of the tongue to another after they have healed.
  • Patient can experience pain, discomfort and burning sensation, especially after eating spicy or hot; and acidic or salty food items.
  • In some cases, patients may not have any symptoms at all.
  • Geographic tongue is an exasperating medical condition, which can go on for many months or years. The problem usually resolves on its own, the patches or lesions can reappear again later on.

Serious Symptoms of Geographic Tongue

  • Although geographic tongue is not a major heath concern, it can be a bit uncomfortable; however, if the lesions do not resolve in 10 days, then you should visit your doctor or dentist immediately, as the tongue lesions could be an indication of something more serious either locally or generally anywhere in the body.

Investigations for Geographic Tongue

Due to its tell tale read patchy map-like appearance, physical examination of the tongue is sufficient to arrive at the diagnosis of Geographic Tongue. The dentist may do the following:

  • A lighted instrument is used to examine the tongue and the oral cavity.
  • The doctor will gently palpate the tongue to assess the extent of tenderness or to check for any other changes in the tongue’s consistency/texture.
  • The doctor will ask you to move around your tongue in different positions to check for more patches.
  • Other signs of infection, such as swollen lymph nodes and fever are also looked for.

Treatment for Geographic tongue

Medical treatment is not usually required for Geographic Tongue. However, there are some steps which can be undertaken to get some relief from the pain and discomfort of the tongue resulting from these patches. The following conservative treatment for Geographic Tongue is commonly recommended by the doctor:

  • Over-the-counter pain killers, such as paracetamol and NSAIDs such as ibuprofen can be taken to relieve the pain and discomfort.
  • Mouth rinses which contain a local anesthetic can be used for pain relief.
  • Mouth rinses with antihistamines in them also help with this condition.
  • Zinc supplements also help with the symptoms of geographic tongue.
  • Corticosteroid rinses and ointments help with pain, redness and swelling if any.
  • As the condition tends to resolve on its own, it is not sure how far these treatments can benefit. The course which the disease might take is also often unpredictable. However, symptomatic treatment can be followed.

Lifestyle Modifications for Geographic Tongue

There are some food items and other such substances, which need to be avoided for relief in pain and discomfort on geographic tongue. The following things can worsen the already sensitive oral tissues:

  • Avoid eating spicy, hot, acidic and salty foods if you have geographic tongue. Follow a relatively bland and healthy diet to avoid pain and discomfort.
  • Do not use any tobacco products and avoid second hand cigarettes smoke if you have geographic tongue.
  • Avoid using toothpaste, which contains heavy flavoring, tartar-control additives and whitening agents, as these things can worsen the symptoms of geographic tongue.
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:March 11, 2019

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