Geographic tongue is a harmless condition causing red patches on the tongue. Find out why.

Geographic tongue is characterized by multiple irregularly shaped red patches on the top of the tongue. The condition describes tongue patches which exhibit a geographic, map-like appearance. The patches may have sharp distinct grey-white borders. Over time, they move around and sometimes completely disappear for varying periods.

Geographic tongue is also known as benign migratory glossitis. Benign because it’s harmless, migratory because it moves around the tongue, and glossitis because the tongue appears inflamed. In reality the term is a misnomer. The appearance is actually caused by elongated lingual (tongue) papillae (protuberances enclosing the taste buds) which may be an intermittent source of food entrapment. This explains the changes in position of the patches and, possibly, a mild inflammation of the papillae.

If patches should appear atypical, particularly if raised or hard, they should be seen by a dental professional and biopsied when indicated.

Geographic tongue is harmless and runs in families. It is not contagious. Meticulous oral hygiene, including tongue brushing or a tongue scraper, may reduce plaque accumulation and promote clean taste and breath. Food allergies may be the cause. A food diary tracking outbreaks may help define the irritant. Triggers may be irritation from hot or spicy foods, alcohol, or tobacco.

It is more common in people who are sensitive to the environment with allergies, eczema or asthma. Diabetics have a higher incidence. Since geographic tongue is not harmful, treatment is usually unnecessary.