Stand in front of a mirror and stick out your tongue: Chances are you’ll see that its moist, bumpy top surface is a healthy pink color. But at one time or another, about one to three percent of the population will notice something different: a tongue covered with a series of smooth, irregularly-shaped reddish patches, often rimmed with white or gray borders. These asymmetrical patches may appear quite suddenly, and may even change shape or position overnight. If you’ve never seen it before, this can be a scary sight. What’s going on?
What we’re describing is a condition called benign migratory glossitis, or “geographic tongue.” Its common name is fitting, because the red patches often look like islands on a map—and they can indeed migrate across the tongue. While it may be disconcerting, the important thing to remember is that geographic tongue is benign: It isn’t cancerous or contagious. And while there isn’t a cure for this condition, most of the time it goes away on its own.
Exactly what causes geographic tongue isn’t completely understood. It is known that the unusual appearance of the tongue results from the temporary loss of tiny structures called papillae. These small lumps give the top surface of the tongue its overall “bumpy” look. When they disappear from an area, that spot takes on a flattened, reddish look. While it can happen to anyone, this ailment is more common among middle-aged adults and non-smokers. It also appears to run in families, meaning that you’re more likely to develop this condition if close relatives have had it.
What’s more, there seems to be a number of factors that may trigger an episode of geographic tongue. One is hormonal changes, especially in women during ovulation or pregnancy. Another appears to be psychological or emotional stress. The common skin condition called psoriasis also has a similar appearance under the microscope, and may be related to geographic tongue; researchers have also proposed that it may be linked to deficiencies of zinc or vitamin B.
While this condition isn’t serious, some people report that it makes their tongue feels more sensitive. Occasionally, numbness or a burning sensation is reported. These symptoms aren’t usually any reason for concern, but they may cause discomfort. Avoiding acidic or spicy foods, such as tomatoes, citrus fruits, or hot sauces, can help; you may also want to stay away from products that contain alcohol, including some mouthwashes.
If you’re anxious about the appearance of your tongue, or you need help managing the symptoms of this condition, a trip to the dental office is a good idea. Your dentist may be able to rule out some other conditions that could be more serious, and to prescribe anesthetic mouth rinses, antihistamines, or other treatments to ease the discomfort. Geographic tongue may look frightening when you first notice it—but your dentist can offer you reassurance and support, and can monitor you to be sure that you are getting the care you need.
To learn more call one of our :DP AtYourService Customer Care Representatives at 1-800-238-5163.