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Geographic Tongue: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

Geographic tongue is a condition where the tongue has an appearance similar to that of a map. This often occurs on the top and/or the sides of the tongue. It may also emerge in other parts of the mouth.

This condition is also known as erythema migrans and benign migratory glossitis.

Geographic tongue affects approximately one to three percent of people.

While it can occur at any age, it is most likely to affect older adults or people of middle age. This seems to be more common in females than males.

Fortunately, there is nothing to worry about this condition for it is benign and harmless. In the same way, it is not connected to any form of cancer or infection.

Symptoms of Geographic Tongue

Symptoms usually include a smooth, irregular tongue with red patches. The patches may:

  • Differ in color, shape, and size
  • Have a light-colored or white border
  • Feature a burning sensation or feeling of discomfort (1 in 10 people with geographic tongue have this.)
  • Come and go and at times may change in a few days, weeks, or even months
  • Occur in one area and then shift to another location
  • Last approximately a year at a time

Sometimes, a person may be unaware that they are suffering from geographic tongue. It usually isn’t until a health care provider or a dentist diagnoses it during a general checkup that they become aware.

Geographic tongue is often due to the sensitivity to substances like:

  • Toothpaste
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Acidic, spicy, and hot foods
  • Dry, salty foods (e.g., nuts)

Causes and Risk Factors of Geographic Tongue

This condition happens when parts of the tongue are missing layers of papillae. Papillae are tiny bumps that are naturally placed on the entire top layer of the tongue. But the question is, why does a person lose papillae to begin with?

In reality, no one knows, but since geographic tongue is more likely to occur in families, heredity may be a link. This condition has also been observed more commonly in people who are suffering from psoriasis and in some people who have fissured tongue. A fissured tongue is characterized by grooves and cracks that occur on the top or sides of the tongue.

Self-Care and Treatment for Geographic Tongue

Visiting a doctor or a dentist is the best approach if you have or think you have geographic tongue. In many cases, the doctor/dentist can detect geographic tongue from the description of the symptoms a person is experiencing as well as from examining the patient’s tongue. The patient may require tests to identify other medical conditions.

At times, any discomfort or pain will get better without undergoing any treatment. But if the patient is encountering serious and/or consistent pain, medication may be necessary.

For geographic tongue, a dentist/doctor may prescribe:

  • Anesthetic oral rinses
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers
  • Zinc supplements
  • Anti-inflammatories
  • Corticosteroids that can be directly applied to the tongue

In the end, treating your geographic tongue is dependent on the recommendations you receive from your doctor and/or dentist.

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