If you occasionally notice mildly irritating red patches on the top surface of your tongue, you may be one of the three percent or less of the population with a condition called benign migratory glossitis. It’s also known as “geographic tongue” because the red patches often resemble land masses on a world map.
While the symptoms may be discomforting, geographic tongue isn’t a cause for serious concern. The red patches are caused by the temporary loss of papillae, tiny bumps that grow on the surface of the tongue, which may appear and disappear repeatedly over a short time period (ranging from hours to days). As its medical name implies, this form of glossitis isn’t cancerous or contagious; it’s referred to as “migratory” because the red patches often appear to move around while changing size and shape. An outbreak can cause a mild burning or stinging sensation, and some people also encounter numbness in the patchy areas.
While there isn’t a firm consensus as to geographic tongue’s exact cause, there do appear to be triggers for it including stress, hormonal changes and mineral or vitamin deficiencies (particularly zinc and Vitamin B). There also seems to be a connection with psoriasis, a skin ailment characterized by redness and scaling — a number of people will experience both conditions. Geographic tongue appears more often in middle-aged, non-smoking adults, particularly women during hormonal fluctuations (as during pregnancy or ovulation). Individuals with deep grooves on their tongues called fissures are more susceptible as well.
There’s no cure for the condition, but there are some treatments that can help alleviate any accompanying irritation. Depending on what we find during examination, we may prescribe anesthetic mouthrinses, antihistamines, steroid ointments or other treatments to help manage discomfort. It may also be helpful to limit your intake of foods during outbreaks that may increase irritation, including high acidic foods like tomatoes or citrus fruit, as well as eggplant, mint, spicy foods and alcohol (including certain mouthwashes).
If you experience these occasional patchy outbreaks on your tongue, please schedule a visit with us for a full examination. We may be able to reduce your discomfort and certainly put your mind at ease.
If you would like more information on geographic tongue, 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.”