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Geographic tongue

Definition

Geographic tongue is a map-like appearance of your tongue due to irregular patches on its surface.

Alternative Names

Patches on the tongue; Tongue - patchy; Benign migratory glossitis; Glossitis - benign migratory

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

The specific cause of geographic tongue is unknown, although vitamin B deficiency may be involved. Other causes may include irritation from hot or spicy foods, or alcohol. The condition appears to be less common in smokers.

The pattern on the surface of the tongue may change very rapidly. This pattern change occurs when there is a loss of the tiny, finger-like projections, called papillae, on the tongue's surface. This makes areas of the tongue flat. These areas are said to be "denuded." Denuded areas may persist for more than a month.

Symptoms

  • Map-like appearance to the surface of the tongue
  • Patches that change location from day to day
  • Smooth, beefy red patches and lesions on the tongue
  • Soreness and burning pain (in some cases)

Signs and tests

Your doctor will usually diagnose this condition based on an examination of your tongue. Tests are usually not necessary.

Treatment

There is no treatment.

Expectations (prognosis)

Geographic tongue is a harmless condition, but it can be persistent and uncomfortable.

Calling your health care provider

Call your doctor if the symptoms last longer than 10 days. Seek immediate medical help if:

  • Breathing trouble occurs
  • The tongue is severely swollen
  • There are problems with speaking, chewing, or swallowing

Prevention

Avoid irritating your tongue with hot or spicy food or alcohol if you are prone to this condition.

References

Goldman L, Ausiello D. Cecil Textbook of Medicine, 22nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: WB Saunders; 2004:2428.

Shulman JD. Prevalence and risk factors associated with geographic tongue among US adults. Oral Dis. Jul 2006; 12(4): 381-6.


Review Date: 3/3/2009
Reviewed By: James L. Demetroulakos, MD, FACS, Department of Otolaryngology, North Shore Medical Center, Salem, MA. Clinical Instructor in Otology and Laryngology, Harvard Medical School. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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