The tongue plays several critical roles. Not only is it involved in chewing and swallowing, but it provides us with our sense of taste. In addition to that, it is vital for speech, enabling us to produce different sounds to make words. Without it, speaking would be much more difficult. As important as it is, however, the tongue can be quite sensitive. For instance, it is not uncommon for it to develop painful bumps after eating hot food; canker sores can also develop on the surface. Other common problems include hairy tongue, fissured tongue, and geographic tongue.
What is Geographic Tongue?
A normal tongue has many tiny bumps called papillae. In people with geographic tongue, these protrusions are missing in certain areas, leaving smooth patches on the tongue that give it a map-like appearance. It is not uncommon for lesions to move to a different part of the mouth after healing in one area. Despite its alarming appearance, geographic tongue is benign and painless; it is not associated with any long-term health complications. It is also not contagious—an individual cannot get the condition by sharing utensils or kissing.
Symptoms of Geographic Tongue
The most common symptom is smooth, red patches on the top or sides of the tongue. More often than not, they are irregular in shape with slightly raised borders. Changes in location, shape, and size are also common. While many cases are asymptomatic, it is possible for geographic tongue to cause discomfort and pain, especially when one eats spicy foods. Depending on the individual, the symptoms can continue for days or months.
When to See the Doctor
Geographic tongue is a relatively minor condition. However, it can be quite uncomfortable, especially if it causes pain. Rarely, lesions on the tongue may indicate an underlying health condition. For this reason, individuals should see their doctor or dentist if the patches do not resolve within ten days. The physician may run some tests to rule out other medical problems.
What Causes Geographic Tongue?
The cause of geographic tongue is unknown, though some experts believe it may be genetic since it can run in families. It is also associated with psoriasis, an autoimmune disease in which thickened patches of skin appear on the body. Still, researchers are unable to establish a definitive link. For now, there is no way to prevent the condition.
Risk Factors for Geographic Tongue
Several factors can increase the risk of developing geographic tongue. Those with a family history of the condition are at a higher risk, as are people with fissured tongue, a malformation that presents as deep grooves on the surface of the tongue. Individuals with inflammatory skin diseases or vitamin B deficiency are also more likely to develop geographic tongue.
Geographic tongue is a benign condition; it will not cause any major health problems or long-term complications. Due to the appearance of the lesions, however, which may be visible depending on their location, it often leads to anxiety. The strange appearance might also make it difficult to reassure an individual that nothing is seriously wrong.
How to Diagnose Geographic Tongue
Diagnosis typically consists of a physical exam. A doctor or dentist will use a lighted instrument to check inside the mouth while the patient moves their tongue in different positions. The doctor may also palpate the tongue to check for pain or unusual changes in texture. Lastly, they may check for signs of infection such as swollen lymph nodes or fever.
Treatments for Geographic Tongue
Geographic tongue does not usually require medical treatment. For some people, however, it can cause discomfort. To manage the pain or sensitivity, individuals can use over-the-counter painkillers, corticosteroid ointments, antihistamine mouth rinses, or anesthetic mouth rinses. In some cases, vitamin B supplementation may relieve symptoms. Due to the fact that the condition tends to resolve on its own, however, it can be difficult to determine the effectiveness of the treatments.
While there is no cure for geographic tongue, some actions can help reduce discomfort. For instance, it helps to avoid foods that commonly cause irritation, such as acidic or spicy dishes. Individuals should also refrain from using alcohol or tobacco as they can aggravate oral tissues, and avoid toothpaste with astringent cleaning ingredients or flavors.
Geographic tongue is a harmless condition. While it depends on the individual, symptoms tend to appear for a few days and then disappear for several months or years. Unfortunately, experts do not know why some people have longer episodes than others. It is also impossible to predict if or when the condition may occur. As a precaution, however, individuals should maintain optimal oral hygiene and avoid contact with substances that can precipitate symptoms such as alcohol, acidic and spicy foods, and irritants in toothpaste.