What Is Geographic Tongue?

Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD and Jabeen Begum, MD on April 26, 2022
3 min read

Geographic tongue is a condition that causes red patches to form on your tongue or in other areas of your mouth. It gets its name because the patches look like a map. Doctors sometimes call it benign migratory glossitis.

The patches can come and go and change shape. Their duration can range from a few days to several years.

Geographic tongue affects about 1%-3% of people. It's benign, which means it’s harmless. It isn't linked to an infection or cancer. It isn’t contagious, so you can’t catch it from or pass it to someone else. It often doesn't have symptoms and usually goes away on its own.


The main symptom of geographic tongue is the presence of uneven red patches on the top, sides, and underside of your tongue. It's rare, but they might also be on your gums, inside your cheeks, or on the roof of your mouth. These patches may:

  • Have a white or light-colored border
  • Change in size, shape, and color
  • Start in one area and then move to another
  • Be smooth, unlike the small bumps (papillae) that usually cover your tongue

You may not know that you have geographic tongue until your dentist or doctor spots it during a mouth exam.

It's not common, but some people with geographic tongue might have a burning or painful feeling. This is often because of things such as:

You might also have swollen lymph nodes under your jaw.

Doctors aren't sure what causes geographic tongue. It might be linked with certain health issues, such as:

  • Eczema and psoriasis
  • Some types of arthritis
  • Type 1 diabetes

Geographic tongue tends to run in families, so it might also have something to do with your genes.

Also, not having enough of these nutrients might cause geographic tongue:

  • Iron
  • Zinc
  • Folic acid
  • Vitamins B6 and B12

Other things that might cause it are stress, hormone changes, and allergies.

Geographic tongue is also linked to a condition called fissured tongue, which causes grooves to form on the tongue. Doctors don't know what causes a fissured tongue, but it's more common in older adults.


Geographic tongue can happen at any age, but it’s more likely in young adults. It’s also more common in women than in men. Other things that raise your risk of geographic tongue:

  • Eczema
  • Psoriasis
  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Certain types of arthritis
  • A family history of geographic tongue
  • Not having enough iron, zinc, folic acid, and vitamins B6 and B12
  • Having a fissured tongue
  • Taking hormonal birth control
  • A lot of stress
  • Allergies

Your dentist or doctor will ask about your symptoms and look at your mouth and tongue. During the exam, your doctor might:

  • Ask you to move your tongue in different directions
  • Touch your tongue to feel changes in the texture
  • Check for any tenderness
  • See if there are any signs of infection, such as swollen lymph nodes in your neck

You may need tests to rule out other medical conditions.

Any pain or discomfort will probably get better on its own. But if you have severe, constant pain, medication can help. Your doctor or dentist may prescribe:

  • Over-the-counter pain relievers
  • Anti-inflammatories
  • Mouth rinses with anesthetic
  • Corticosteroids that you put on your tongue
  • Zinc supplements

It also helps to limit or avoid things such as:

  • Tobacco
  • Hot, spicy, or acidic foods or dry, salty nuts
  • Toothpaste with additives (such as sodium lauryl sulfate), whitening agents, or heavy flavoring (toothpaste for sensitive teeth is a better choice)