No, Unfortunately, Your Geographic Tongue is Not a World Traveler.
Geographic tongue can be a little startling when you first see it. If you start to notice irregularly shaped red patches on your tongue (or a loved one’s tongue), your first inclination may be to freak out a little bit. As always, when you start to notice worrisome symptoms in your mouth, you can always reach out to your dental care team for help and guidance. But, geographic tongue, although it can be startling in appearance, is not a reason to panic. It’s an issue that your dental care team (and sometimes your primary healthcare team) can help you manage.
So, What is Geographic Tongue?
Geographic tongue is an inflammatory disorder. It causes red areas on the tongue with irregular shapes. It’s called geographic tongue because the borders of the red patches are uneven and can look like map borders. The location of these patches can sift over time, leading to the condition’s other common name-benign migratory glossitis.
What Does it Look Like?
The patches are slightly red and flat looking due to the loss of the natural papillae that usually cover the surface of everyone’s tongue. Papillae are the tiny, parts of the tongue that stick out from the surface and give the tongue its textured appearance. Some papillae contain taste buds, though most do not. The patches from geographic tongue usually appear on the top and sides of the tongue.
Is it Dangerous?
According to the American Academy of Oral Medicine, geographic tongue is not contagious and there are no reports of it turning into cancer. Although it is considered an inflammatory condition, it is not considered dangerous. Sometimes, patches from geographic tongue are seen on other surfaces of the mouth (gums, inner cheeks, etc.) and are called erythema migrans, but despite the similar name to the rash that can indicate Lyme disease, these patches are not infectious signs of Lyme disease.
Who Develops Geographic Tongue?
Anyone can develop it—younger, older, or adolescent. It seems to be slightly more common in young adults. It is found in 1-3% of adults worldwide.
There is evidence to suggest that people who have psoriasis, an immune system related skin condition, are more likely to have geographic tongue. It’s not yet clear from the studies if geographic tongue is a type of psoriasis or if people who have one condition are just more likely to develop the other.
What Can Be Done for It?
Most of the time, geographic tongue will heal on its own. Treatment is mainly focused on managing uncomfortable symptoms. Sometimes, your medical team may recommend a mouthwash that can numb your tongue if you are experiencing discomfort. If the doctor or dentist suspects allergies may be worsening your symptoms, they may recommend an antihistamine rinse. Steroids or over the counter pain relievers may be given for the same reasons. It’s possible that certain vitamin deficiencies may cause or worsen geographic tongue, so your doctor may recommend vitamin supplements if you have other signs of deficiencies.
The most important thing you can do for your oral health is to maintain excellent oral hygiene with great brushing and flossing techniques. If you have any concerns, don’t hesitate to give your dental care team a call. They want to help!