Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Oral Care

Select An Article
Font Size

Geographic Tongue

Geographic tongue is the name of a condition that gets its name from its map-like appearance on the upper surface and sides of the tongue. It may occur in other areas of your mouth, as well.

You'll be relieved to know that geographic tongue is a harmless, benign condition that isn't linked to any infection or cancer. Two other names for geographic tongue are benign migratory glossitis and erythema migrans.

Recommended Related to Oral Health

Fissured Tongue

If you have fissures in your tongue, it's likely no cause for concern. In fact, certain types of grooves or cracks are considered simply a variation of a normal tongue. Sometimes called a plicated or scrotal tongue, this condition is often harmless. However, it's rarely a good idea to diagnose yourself. So, if you have any concerns, set your mind at ease by discussing this with your doctor or oral specialist.

Read the Fissured Tongue article > >

Affecting about 1% to 3% of people, geographic tongue can show up at any age.  However, it tends to affect middle-aged or older adults more often. And it appears to be more common in women than in men.

Symptoms of Geographic Tongue

The telltale signs of geographic tongue are irregular, smooth, red patches on parts of the tongue. These patches may:

  • Have a white or light-colored border
  • Vary in size, shape, and color
  • Appear one area, and then move to another area
  • Come and go or change very quickly  in days, weeks, or months
  • Last up to a year

You may be unaware that you have geographic tongue until your dentist or other health care provider diagnoses it during an oral exam.

About one in 10 people with geographic tongue may have mild discomfort or a burning or painful sensation. This is often from sensitivity to substances such as:

  • Hot, spicy, or acidic foods
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Toothpaste

 

Causes and Risk Factors

Geographic tongue occurs when parts of the tongue are missing layers of small bumps called papillae. They normally cover the entire upper layer of your tongue. Why do you lose these papillae with geographic tongue? Nobody knows for sure. However, because geographic tongue tends to run in families, genetics may be a common link.

Geographic tongue has also been seen more frequently in people with psoriasis and in those with fissured tongue. In fissured tongue, cracks and grooves appear on the tops and sides of the tongue.

Treatment or Self-Care for Geographic Tongue

Seeing a dentist or doctor is the best way to rule out a more serious problem. In most cases, he or she can diagnose geographic tongue from a description of your symptoms and from examining your mouth and tongue. You may need tests to rule out other medical conditions.

In most cases, any pain or discomfort will get better without treatment. But if you have severe, ongoing pain, medication can help. These are examples of what your doctor or dentist may prescribe:

  • Over-the-counter pain relievers
  • Anti-inflammatories
  • Mouth rinses with anesthetic
  • Corticosteroids applied directly on the tongue
  • Zinc supplements

If you're wondering about steps you can take to hasten the relief of symptoms, try limiting these substances or avoid them altogether:

  • Tobacco
  • Hot, spicy, or acidic foods or dried, salty nuts
  • Toothpaste with additives, whitening agents, or heavy flavoring (toothpaste for sensitive teeth is a better choice)

 

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Steve Drescher, DDS on June 20, 2012
Next Article:

How Do I Measure Up? Get the Facts Fast!

Number of Days Per Week I Floss

Get the latest Oral Health newsletter delivered to your inbox!


or
Answer:
Never
(0)
Good
(1-3)
Better
(4-6)
Best
(7)

You are currently

Only 18.5% of Americans never floss. You are missing out on a simple way to make a big difference in the health of your mouth. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Floss removes food trapped between the teeth and removes the film of bacteria that forms there before it turns to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Try flossing just one tooth to get started.

You are one of 31% of Americans who don't floss daily. You are missing out on a simple way to make a big difference in the health of your mouth. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Aim for 3 more days!

You are one of 31% of Americans who don't floss daily, but you're well on your way to making a positive impact on your teeth and gums. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Aim for all 7 days!

Only 50.5% of Americans floss daily, and good for you that you are one of them! Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Congratulations on your good oral health habit!

SOURCES:

American Dental Association, Healthy People 2010

This tool is intended only for adults 18 and older.

Start Over

Step:  of 

Today on WebMD

big smile
Article
Man grinding teeth
Article
 
Close-up of toothbrush
Health Check
how your mouth impacts your health
Slideshow
 

are battery operated toothbrushes really better
Video
bpa dental sealants
Video
 
Healthy Mouth Slideshow
Video
Young woman holding lip at dentists office
Video
 

15 myths and facts about cavities
Video
how healthy is your mouth
Video
 
elmo brushing teeth
fitVideo
5 ways to prevent diabetes dental problems
Video