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Don't be Alarmed if you Suddenly See Red Patches on the Tongue


“Geographic tongue” is an odd name for an equally odd condition. But while these characteristic reddened patches on the tongue may at first seem alarming, the condition isn’t contagious or otherwise hazardous. Except for occasional discomfort most people with geographic tongue don’t notice it.

Because it only affects 3% or less of people, chances are good you’ll never experience geographic tongue. But if you or someone you know does develop it, here’s what you need to know.

It’s called geographic tongue because the patches on the tongue’s surface resemble land masses on a map, surrounded by grayish-white borders. The condition is clinically called benign migratory glossitis, which describes more of its characteristics: “glossitis” literally means an inflammation of the tongue; “migratory” refers to the patches’ tendency to seemingly change shape or locations, or disappear and then reappear; and “benign” simply means the patches aren’t cancerous.

The patches themselves appear flat—this is because the papillae, tiny bumps on the tongue’s grainy upper surface, have temporarily been lost. Usually there’s little to no pain during an outbreak, although you may feel a little burning or stinging sensation.

We haven’t definitively determined the cause of geographic tongue, but there do seem to be supporting factors. The condition tends to run in families, mostly affecting people in middle-age or women with hormonal fluctuations as during ovulation or pregnancy. There also seems to be some link with stress or other psychological problems, zinc or vitamin B deficiencies, psoriasis or foods with high acidity like tomatoes or citrus fruits.

There is no cure for geographic tongue, but often there’s no need to intervene. If you experience discomfort we can prescribe anesthetic mouthrinses, antihistamines or steroid ointments to help reduce the symptoms.

While it may be alarming to notice these patches on the tongue, there’s nothing to fear. This “oddity” poses no threat to your health.

If you would like more information on geographic tongue and similar abnormalities, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Geographic Tongue: No Cause for Alarm.”

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