Geographic tongue is an inflammatory but harmless condition affecting the surface of your tongue. The tongue is normally covered with tiny, pinkish-white bumps (papillae), which are actually short, fine, hairlike projections. With geographic tongue, patches on the surface of the tongue are missing papillae and appear as smooth, red "islands," often with slightly raised borders.
These patches (lesions) give the tongue a maplike, or geographic, appearance. The lesions often heal in one area and then move (migrate) to a different part of your tongue. Geographic tongue is also known as benign migratory glossitis.
Although geographic tongue may look alarming, it doesn't cause health problems and isn't associated with infection or cancer. Geographic tongue can sometimes cause tongue discomfort and increased sensitivity to certain substances, such as spices, salt and even sweets.
Signs and symptoms of geographic tongue may include:
Many people with geographic tongue have no symptoms.
Geographic tongue can continue for days, months or years. The problem often resolves on its own but may appear again at a later time.
Geographic tongue is a minor â although sometimes uncomfortable â condition. However, lesions on the tongue may indicate other more-serious conditions of the tongue or diseases affecting the body in general. If you have lesions on the tongue that don't resolve within 10 days, see your doctor or dentist.
The cause of geographic tongue is unknown, and there's no way to prevent the condition. There may be a link between geographic tongue and psoriasis and between geographic tongue and lichen planus. But more research is needed to better understand possible connections.
Your physician or dentist can usually make a diagnosis of geographic tongue based on an examination of your tongue and your signs and symptoms.
During the exam, your physician or dentist may:
Geographic tongue is a benign condition. It doesn't pose a threat to your health, cause long-term complications or increase your risk of major health problems.
However, anxiety about the condition is fairly common because:
You may reduce discomfort associated with geographic tongue by avoiding or limiting substances that commonly aggravate sensitive oral tissues, such as spicy or acidic foods or beverages, as well as alcohol and tobacco.
Studies of factors that may be associated with an increased risk of geographic tongue have produced mixed results. Factors that are likely associated with an increased risk include: