Medical Professional Examining a Patient's Mouth


Having a ‘geographic tongue’ sounds and looks cool. It isn’t.

Quick notes:

  • Geographic tongue is a condition where parts of the tongue are inflamed
  • It is harmless but can be irritating and affect a sufferer’s ability to taste
  • Doctors aren’t sure what causes it and there’s no remedy but treatment to handle symptoms exists.

What is a ‘geographic tongue’?

Most people take their tongue for granted and never stop to think about how it allows them to taste their food, to speak, and to swallow. Typically, healthy tongues are a consistent pink with regular, evenly-sized taste buds spread across it. But what about when things aren’t typical. When they get weird?

For some people, the surface on their tongue can change. It can develop red, irritated areas contrasted by a pattern of white swirls or splotches that look like continents. The overall appearance of this weird tongue condition has been compared to a map, giving rise to the name ‘geographic tongue’.

What do doctors know about the condition? Does it cause cancer? Is it contagious?

Estimates show that between 1 and 2.5 percent of people develop a geographic tongue but the condition doesn’t look the same in everyone. Patches vary and sometimes can become curled lines instead of round areas. The condition can be chronic and is considered annoying, but it hasn’t been found to be extremely dangerous or fatal. It has not been linked to cancer in any way and isn’t contagious.

In most individuals, the condition changes over the course of the time they experience it. The inflamed areas shift, though patches don’t typically move back to an area that they’ve already been in. In certain cases, it can appear to go away entirely, but it still remains.

Geographic Tongue (swirling pattern on tongue)Geographic Tongue (swirling pattern on tongue)

What are the symptoms?

One of the first signs of geographic tongue is often how it feels. Sufferers experience a burning sensation that can range from mild to more intense. The feelings have been compared to how skin can burn when experiencing an allergic reaction or psoriasis and, for this reason, the condition has been called psoriasis tongue. Unfortunately, while someone can scratch their skin to stop an itch, it’s impossible to do the same on a tongue.

It’s not uncommon for someone suffering from geographic tongue to feel anxious about how it looks. Despite any reassurances that the condition isn’t fatal, it can be hard for a sufferer to believe that nothing serious is wrong. The more distinct the white patterning becomes, the more anxiety someone may feel.

What causes a geographic tongue flare-up?

From a biological standpoint, WebMD states “Geographic tongue occurs when parts of the tongue are missing layers of small bumps called papillae” yet no knows why the affected lose papillae. However, doctors maintain a couple of theories about what brings it on. Suspected causes include allergies, emotional stress, diabetes, and hormone imbalances. Experts are also investigating any relationship between geographic tongue and psoriasis. They’ve found that it is more frequent in patients that have the skin condition.

As they’ve reviewed the condition, experts have also noted a strong connection between family history and geographic tongue. It is possible, however, that a genetic link is less connected to geographic tongue and more strongly connected between some of the condition’s causes, like diabetes. Some patients have also found that avoiding tobacco or spicy foods helps to relieve flare-up.

Is there a cure? How about treatment for symptoms?

As doctors and other health experts continue to work towards understanding the causes of geographic tongue, they are getting closer to finding out what can cure it. At this time, however, there’s nothing definite that can prevent or end it.

There’s not a cure, but doctors can provide relief from the pain.

Fortunately, there are ways to treat the condition. If things become too uncomfortable, patients are advised to see a doctor who can prescribe topical anesthetics. OTC pain medications, rinses or vitamin B supplements may help relieve symptoms and manage discomfort.

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