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Geographic tongue

Geographic tongue is irregular patches on the surface of the tongue. This gives it a map-like appearance.

Alternative Names

Patches on the tongue; Tongue - patchy; Benign migratory glossitis; Glossitis - benign migratory

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

The exact cause of geographic tongue is unknown. It may be caused by a lack of vitamin B. It also may be due to irritation from hot or spicy foods, or alcohol. The condition appears to be less common in smokers.

The change in pattern on the surface of the tongue occurs when there is a loss of the tiny, finger-like projections, called papillae, on the tongue. These areas look flat as a result. The appearance of the tongue may change very quickly. The flat-looking areas may remain for more than a month.

Symptoms

  • Map-like appearance to the surface of the tongue
  • Patches that move from day to day
  • Smooth, red patches and sores (lesions) on the tongue
  • Soreness and burning pain (in some cases)

Signs and tests

Your doctor will diagnose this condition by looking at your tongue. Most of the time, tests are not needed.

Treatment


No treatment is needed. Antihistamine gel or steroid mouth rinses may help ease discomfort.

Expectations (prognosis)

Geographic tongue is a harmless condition.  It may be uncomfortable and last for a long time.

Calling your health care provider

Call your doctor if the symptoms last longer than 10 days. Seek immediate medical help if:

  • You have breathing problems.
  • Your tongue is severely swollen.
  • You have problems speaking, chewing, or swallowing

Prevention

Avoid irritating your tongue with hot or spicy food or alcohol if you are prone to this condition.

References

Reamy BV, Derby R, Bunt CW. Common tongue conditions in primary care. Am Fam Physician. 2010;81(5):627-634.

Mirowski GW, Mark LA. Oral disease and oral-cutaneous manifestations of gastrointestinal and liver disease. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier;2010:chap 22.

Updated: 3/22/2013

Ashutosh Kacker, MD, BS, Associate Professor of Otolaryngology, Weill Cornell Medical College, and Associate Attending Otolaryngologist, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, New York, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.


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