Geographic Tongue

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

Geographic tongue is a condition that gets its name from patches that look like a map on the top and sides of your tongue. You can also have it in other areas of your mouth. Doctors sometimes call it benign migratory glossitis.

The patches can come and go or change very quickly over days, weeks, or months. You might have them for up to a year.

Geographic tongue is 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.

The signs of geographic tongue are uneven red patches. They’re usually on your tongue but can also be on your gums, on your cheeks, on the roof of your mouth, or under your tongue. These patches may:

  • Have a white or light-colored border
  • Vary in size, shape, and color
  • Start in one area and then move to another
  • Not have 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 an oral exam.

About 1 in 10 people with geographic tongue have mild discomfort or a burning or painful feeling. This is often because of things like:

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

Geographic tongue happens when parts of your tongue are missing layers of papillae. Doctors aren’t sure exactly why you lose them. However, because geographic tongue tends to run in families, it might have something to do with your genes.

Geographic tongue is also more common in people who have psoriasis or cracks and grooves on the top and sides of their tongue (fissured tongue).

Geographic tongue affects about 1% to 3% of people. It can happen at any age, but it’s more likely in young adults. It’s more common in women than in men.

Your dentist or doctor will ask about your symptoms and look at your mouth and tongue. 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 might also help to limit or avoid things like:

  • 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)

Show Sources

Photo Credit: Pierphotographer / Getty Images


NetWellness Consumer Health Information:"Common Mouth and Tongue Conditions."

OhioHealth online: "Geographic tongue."

American Academy of Oral & Maxillofacial Pathology: "Geographic Tongue."

American Academy of Oral Medicine: “Geographic Tongue.”

National Organization for Rare Disorders: “Geographic Tongue.”

American Academy of Oral Medicine – Photo Caption

Cleveland Clinic – Photo Caption

Mayo Clinic – Photo Caption

National Organization for Rare Diseases – Photo Caption

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