What is geographic tongue?

Geographic tongue is a harmless condition that appears on the top and sides of the tongue, forming small, map-like red areas. Foods that may trigger geographic tongue include hot foods and beverages, alcohol, and spicy foods.
Geographic tongue is a harmless condition that appears on the top and sides of the tongue, forming small, map-like red areas. Foods that may trigger geographic tongue include hot foods and beverages, alcohol, and spicy foods.

Geographic tongue is a harmless condition that appears on the top and sides of the tongue, forming small, map-like red areas. Usually, it’s no cause for concern and will heal on its own, but there are a few things to keep in mind if you want to minimize this condition. Here’s everything you need to know.

Geographic tongue is an inflammatory condition that causes patches on the surface of the tongue, creating a map-like appearance. It’s generally considered to be completely harmless, but the patches may be unpleasant to see, causing embarrassment to the person who has them.

Sometimes, the patches also appear on other places inside the mouth — most notably, on the palate, cheeks, and gums. Still, the condition isn’t contagious, meaning that no one will get it as a result of kissing or sharing a drink with you. 

The areas affected take a couple of days to form defined patches, which usually last for many weeks. There’s no definite answer to how long these patches take to clear up. However, keep in mind that they often recur in other areas of your tongue. 

If you find that the patches start making you hurt, or notice anything abnormal, check with your doctor immediately. Geographic tongue should only cause slight discomfort, at most, a burning and barely painful sensation when eating spicy or acidic foods. Lesions that behave differently may be signs of a more serious condition.

What’s behind the red patches?

The tongue is covered with tiny hair-like structures called papillae. These projections are key to the sense of taste, as they actually contain taste buds and temperature receptors. They are all over the top and sides of the tongue, concentrating even more towards the tip.

Different causes can make these papillae disappear in patches, generating harmless, localized lesions with slightly raised borders. While the lack of papillae itself shouldn’t cause pain, it may cause increased sensitivity to salt and spices.

What are the symptoms of geographic tongue?

By far, the most common symptom of geographic tongue is the red patches on the surface of your tongue. These often have slightly raised borders and recur at various places, creating a map-like appearance.

Besides the famous red patches, geographic tongue doesn’t usually cause other symptoms. However, some people report a few other signs caused by this condition, which are mostly related to pain and discomfort.

Due to the lack of papillae, the patches might make you more sensitive to foods that contain large amounts of salt, spice, or acid. In some cases, this might even extend to sweets as well. The pain or discomfort usually manifests as similar to that of a scalded tongue.

What causes geographic tongue?

There are no specific causes for geographic tongue. However, experts suggest that it might be linked to genetic inheritance, as it often appears on people who have fissured tongues, a different tongue condition that has strong genetic links.

Conditions such as psoriasis may also be linked to geographic tongue. Psoriasis is an inflammatory skin disease that creates silver-scaled patches on the skin. Other suspected causes for geographic tongue include allergies, juvenile diabetes, and hormonal disturbances. In some cases, even emotional stress may trigger this condition. 

Still, remember that there isn’t any definite evidence to prove these connections. They are still only possibilities.

Are there any nutrient deficiencies linked to geographic tongue?

It’s suspected that zinc deficiency may be related to this condition. Zinc plays a crucial role in wound healing and reconstructing the papillae of the tongue. Lacking this mineral can cause atrophies on the tongue, such as geographic tongue.

While at one point experts suggested that iron and vitamin B12 deficiency also played a role in this condition, recent evidence doesn’t support this. However, it’s always important to maintain a good balance of nutrients to avoid other diseases.

Are there any specific foods that trigger geographic tongue?

Because there is no definite evidence settling specific causes for geographic tongue, it’s hard to pinpoint which food may be able to cause it. However, some experts believe that foods that cause irritation may be a starting point for this condition.

Irritation on the tongue may be caused by :

Keep in mind that these are only conjectures, and will not cause geographic tongue on most of the population. Yet, if you’re already prone to this condition because of other factors, such as allergies or juvenile diabetes, it might be worth keeping an eye out for these foods and beverages. 

Are there any foods that can help avoid or treat geographic tongue?

As we’ve already mentioned, recent studies have shown that geographic tongue may be related to zinc deficiency. To avoid this, make sure to include a good amount of zinc in your diet through foods such as meat and poultry.

Here are some foods that provide zinc:

  • Beef
  • Pork
  • Chicken
  • Fruit yogurt
  • Beans
  • Nuts

How do you treat geographic tongue?

Currently, there is no cure for geographic tongue. The condition will heal on its own. although it might take years before it goes away completely. Instead, doctors may opt for reassurance and specific treatments for possible discomforts.

If you suffer from oversensitivity to irritation due to geographic tongue, you might want to avoid spicy, hot, and overly-acidic foods. Your doctor may also suggest topical anesthetics and steroids, or general antihistamines to alleviate pain. However, most of the time, no treatment will be necessary.

What happens if it goes untreated?

Nothing happens if geographic tongue goes untreated. As we’ve already mentioned, most doctors’ approach to this condition is to let it heal on its own. At worst, if it goes untreated, you might have to withstand temporary oversensitivity to certain foods that cause irritation.

When to see a doctor

If you notice that the patches are causing you more pain than usual, or if you experience other symptoms, you may need to book an appointment with your doctor. Geographic tongue is neither cancerous nor will it lead to other diseases. However, more severe symptoms may indicate other conditions altogether.

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Medically Reviewed on 5/24/2022

Academy of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology: "Geographic Tongue."

American Academy of Oral Medicine: "Geographic Tongue."

DermNet NZ: "Geographic tongue," "Transient lingual papillitis."

J Dent Res Dent Clin Dent Prospects: "Determining salivary and serum levels of iron, zinc and vitamin B12 in patients with geographic tongue."

Mount Sinai: "Geographic tongue."

Narayana Health: "How to Maintain a Balanced Diet."

National Institutes of Health: “Zinc."

NORD: "Geographic Tongue."

Oral Health Foundation: "Geographic tongue."

St. Clair Health: "Geographic tongue."