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If you’re somebody who seems to be extra sensitive to spicy foods or maybe noticed some weird patches on your tongue that come and go over time, you may be one of the many people who experience geographic tongue. This tongue condition, medically known as benign migratory glossitis, is actually quite common but rarely talked about. We had dentists break down what is a geographic tongue, the symptoms, causes, and treatment options for optimal mouth health.
What is geographic tongue?
Geographic tongue is an inflammation of the tongue’s surface, explains Tim Donley, D.D.S., a Philips Sonicare Partner. Because of this inflammation, the tiny pink-white bumps that contain your taste buds (called papillae) are missing. Instead, those with the condition have smooth, red patches on their tongue.
“It’s an area of taste buds that, for whatever reason, have migrated away or disappeared and it exposes the underlying surface of the tongue,” explains Keith Arbeitman, D.D.S., founder and CEO of SymplBrush. He adds that because the underlying tissue of the tongue becomes exposed, it can cause hypersensitivity on the tongue.
Plus, it’s far more common than you’d think. “We see it all the time,” Arbeitman says. Of the 20 to 30 patients Arbeitman sees daily, he finds cases of geographic tongue nearly every other day. Research has found that about 3% of the population has geographic tongue.
Symptoms of geographic tongue
The most obvious symptom of geographic tongue is the visual cue of markings on the tongue, sometimes in what appears to be map-like (which is why it’s called geographic tongue), Arbeitman explains.
“Symptoms include a visible pattern on the tongue of red and white patches. These red patches can be painful and sensitive,” says Brian Harris, D.D.S, D.M.D., SNOW and Frost Oral Care’s Lead Medical Advisor. “It is common for the patches to move to different locations on the tongue until they eventually heal up.”
Arbeitman warns it can visually mimic oral cancer, so patients often panic when they first notice it. But Donley assures that geographic tongue is benign, is not contagious, and isn’t linked to any cancer.
Some patients also experience sensitivity to spicy or acidic foods, but otherwise, many people don’t have any symptoms at all, Arbeitman says.
Causes of geographic tongue
There’s not much known about what causes geographic tongue, but there is some suspicion that it is associated with vitamin deficiencies, says Arbeitman. Harris adds that factors like emotional stress, hormonal changes, and allergies may also play a role, and Donley notes genetics or psoriasis may play a part. More research is needed in this area to know for sure, he says.
Geographic tongue treatment
Because the condition imparts no harm to your body, treatment isn’t needed unless you’re experiencing pain or burning, explains Gary Silverstrom D.D.S.
If you’re dealing with the discomfort of geographic tongue, there, unfortunately, aren't any permanent treatment options. Harris suggests reaching for over-the-counter pain medication to help with the symptoms. Your doctor may also suggest corticosteroid, an anesthetic mouth rinse, or a vitamin B supplement as well, he notes.
Additionally, if you find your day-to-day is fine, but certain foods trigger discomfort, Arbeitman suggests taking note and avoiding those citrusy, sour, sweet, or spicy foods.
The bottom line
Though mostly harmless, Arbeitman says that if you notice something different about your tongue or something is bothering you, it’s best to see your dentist.
“Geographic tongue is a mild condition, but patients should still be aware of any changes in their tongue’s appearance or if they begin experiencing tongue-related pain,” Donley says.
Generally, your dentist is going to check for oral cancer and other issues at your normal visit anyway, so they’ll notice if something looks off at your routine check-ins.
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