Geographic tongue is an oral lesion and affects 1% to 3% of the global population. It’s a harmless condition characterized by island-like red, bald patches on the tongue surface. Geographic tongue is often transient and doesn’t need professional treatment. Read more about it and what to do if you have it.
What is a geographic tongue?
The tongue is coated with papilla: finger-like cells that help with chewing and tasting. Without these papillae, the tongue loses its natural appearance, standard color, and texture. Loss of papillae can result in an inflammatory condition of the tongue (glossitis) known as geographic tongue.
In a person with this condition, the tongue surface has multiple reddish-pale, island-shaped patches surrounded by an irregular white or gray border. The central red zones represent areas of lost papillae, and the white zones represent areas with regenerating papillae. These patches can come and go, and vary in shape, size, and location. The condition derives its name from these mobile “map-like patterns”, and can occur in varying prevalence across ethnicities and ages.
Symptoms of a geographic tongue
People with geographic tongues often don’t have any apparent symptoms and the problem typically resolves on its own. In others, the common symptoms can be:
- Migratory. A geographic tongue is migratory in nature; it keeps changing its site. Due to this, it is also known as benign migratory glossitis, erythema migrans, annulus migrans, and a “wandering rash of the tongue”.
- Appearance. Red and bald patches, bordered by white lines-its unique map-like appearance makes for an easy diagnosis.
- Discomfort. Some people experience discomfort, burning sensation, altered taste, and sensitivity to hot, spicy, and sour foods.
- Lesions. The lesion can resolve within days – or persist for many weeks or months at a stretch.
Lateral and dorsal portions of the tongue are the most affected sites. Occasionally, extra-lingual lesions can be found on the lips, cheek mucosa, and the floor of the mouth. These extra-lingual lesions are known as migratory stomatitis.
Geographic tongue happens significantly more in women, children between the ages of 4 and 5 and among young adults aged 20 to 29.
Despite these symptoms, the good news is that geographic tongue is not linked to any long-term health concerns in healthy people.
Geographic tongue – who is at risk?
The exact cause behind this lesion is yet to be deciphered. However, experts have associated a geographic tongue with certain health conditions.
- Mental health. Research reveals that people suffering from mental diseases are at a high risk of developing a geographic tongue.
- Families. This condition can run in families, suggesting a strong genetic and hereditary link.
- Contraception. Women taking oral contraceptive pills risk getting a geographic tongue, most probably due to the synthetic hormonal supplements in the pills.
- Allergies. Several studies have found a correlation between geographic tongue and allergic diseases like asthma, eczema, hay fever, allergic rhinitis, and individuals with higher levels of immunoglobulin E. 24.1% of individuals with geographic tongues suffer from allergies.
- Vitamins. People deficient in zinc, iron, folic acid, and vitamins B6 and B12 often suffer from geographic tongue.