Geographic Tongue

What is a Geographic Tongue?

Geographic tongue is also called benign migratory glossitis, BMG, wandering rash of the tongue, geographic stomatitis, erythema migrans and erythema areata migrans .

No matter what it is called, although not very common it is not a medical emergency. It also is not contagious, so it is okay to kiss a person with geographic tongue.

The condition mostly appears on the top of the tongue but it can also affect the sides and the bottom. It is characterized by irregular red rashes that somehow resemble the contours of a geographic map.

People of all ages can develop geographic tongue. The cause is unknown although the American Academy of Oral Medicine notes that a possible cause could be a complication of psoriasis, since a large number of patients with geographic tongue also have psoriasis.

Although the tongue may sprout unusual growths, they are usually not cancerous.

What are the Symptoms of a Geographic Tongue?

Many people with geographic tongue would never know it unless the condition was pointed out to them.

Symptoms include

For those that do, they see abnormally smooth red patches on the tongue. The patches may stand out because they are often bordered in yellow or white.

The skin of the “border” may be raised. These patches can change size, shape and location on the tongue surface every day. More serious symptoms include pain in the tongue, a burning sensation on the tongue. Pain under the lower jaw where the lymph nodes are located can also happen. Sometimes the red patches with raised borders can occur in other areas of the mouth an inside of the cheeks as well as the tongue.

Geographic Tongue Causes

Experts aren’t sure what causes geographic tongue, but there are many theories about the potential causes of the condition.

Firstly, geographic tongue seems to be more common in people with psoriasis, which is another inflammatory condition. It could be that the condition is an oral version of psoriasis. However, not everyone who has psoriasis will develop geographic tongue, so the link between the two conditions isn’t fully understood.

In some cases, geographic tongue appears to occur as a result of stress, emotional trauma or other psychological factors. In others, it appears that the condition is linked with physical health conditions, including allergies, hormone imbalances and diabetes. However, there is no conclusive evidence that directly links geographic tongue with any of these factors.

Finally, there appears to be some genetic factors involved with geographic tongue. Some people with the condition have a family history of it, which suggests that it could be a genetic trait which can be inherited from parents.

How is a Geographic Tongue Treated?

Most people with geographic tongue do not need any medical treatment.

Treatment includes

If they experience a burning sensation then they need to avoid spicy foods or foods containing acids like citrus fruits. People with painful or sore tongues may be prescribed mild anesthetics that can be safely placed directly on the tongue to numb it. Painful tongue and lymph nodes may need a round of anti-inflammatory drugs in order to reduce the swelling that causes pain.

A person with a history of cancer, especially oral cancer, may need a biopsy of the raised growths of the borders just to be sure the cancer has not returned.

Geographic Tongue Prevention

Since the causes of geographic tongue aren’t clear, there doesn’t appear to be any way to prevent the condition. However, individuals with geographic tongue may be able to prevent pain and discomfort often associated with the condition by adjusting certain lifestyle factors.

Firstly, it’s important to avoid foods, drinks and substances which could aggravate the tongue if it is sensitive. Spicy foods, acidic foods, alcohol and tobacco are all known to cause irritation. You may find other substances unique to you which seem to cause irritation, so make a note of these when you discover them and avoid them in future.

Secondly, it may be possible to manage the burning sensations associated with geographic tongue with the use of a topical anesthetic. These work by numbing the surface of the tongue. Anti-inflammatory medications may also help to alleviate the irritation caused by the condition.

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Last Reviewed:
September 21, 2016
Last Updated:
December 27, 2017