Being diagnosed with a rare condition is stressful, but understanding the causes, symptoms, and treatment options can help your outlook. The same is true for a rare condition of the mouth called geographic tongue. Fortunately, geographic tongue is not a dangerous condition. Read on to learn more about the condition, including its causes, symptoms, and available treatment for geographic tongue options.

Understanding This Condition

Geographic tongue is a benign tongue condition that can cause geographic-looking patches on the tongue. Doctors aren’t sure why geographic tongue occurs, but some studies have suggested that there’s a genetic link, as it’s often seen in family members. In fact, around 1-3% of the population has flare-ups of geographic tongue. Geographic tongue occurs most often in middle-age and is more common in women than men.

Tongues are covered in a layer of small bumps known as papillae, otherwise known as taste buds. For people with geographic tongue, the papillae alternate between lengthening and shortening, causing red, flat areas on the tongue’s surface. The pattern on the tongue will change with each flare-up.

The good news is that geographic tongue is not a sign of a more serious disease or condition. While the condition isn’t dangerous, dealing with flare-ups can sometimes be embarrassing.

Symptoms of Geographic Tongue

Some people with geographic tongue do not experience symptoms, and may not even notice the change in appearance. On the other hand, people who do notice symptoms may initially see distinct signs on the tongue, which often makes diagnosis easy for your dentist.

The symptoms of geographic tongue include the following:

  • Irregular, island-shaped red lesions that are smooth and possibly sensitive
  • White or light-colored borders that may be slightly raised around the edges of the lesions
  • Patches or lesions of varying sizes and shapes
  • Patches or lesions that appear to “migrate” or move from one area of the tongue to another in a matter of days or weeks
  • Sensitivity to certain substances, including cigarette smoke, toothpaste, mouthwashes, sweets, sugar, and hot, spicy, or highly acidic foods
  • Mild discomfort or burning sensations on the tongue or in the mouth

Flare-ups vary in length, with symptoms lasting for a few days or as long as a year.

Treatment of Geographic Tongue

Treatment of geographic tongue varies by the length and severity of flare-ups, and while most symptoms will disappear within a few days or weeks, there are some treatment options available.

While most people do not have any pain associated with geographic tongue, around 10% of sufferers will experience discomfort or a burning sensation when eating acidic or spicy foods.

During flare-ups, it’s a good idea to keep a mild diet so as not to irritate the tongue any further.

Like spicy food, highly flavored toothpastes that have added astringent cleaning ingredients may also irritate your tongue during a flare-up. Stick to more mild toothpastes to make brushing your teeth more comfortable.

Over-the-counter medicine like ibuprofen or naproxen sodium will likely be strong enough to treat any pain or discomfort caused by the lesions, but if needed, your doctor may prescribe a corticosteroid rinse to help reduce the inflammation. A mouth rinse with a mild anesthetic may also help reduce pain and irritation.

Geographic tongue may be uncomfortable or make you self-conscious, but rest assured that it’s not a sign of a larger or more serious problem. If you begin developing irritation or pain with your flare-ups, make an appointment to see your dentist.

Here at Endodontic Specialists of Colorado, our team of dentists makes it their mission to give patients a healthy, beautiful smile that lasts a lifetime. If you’re suffering from tooth pain, contact one of our offices in Pueblo or Colorado Springs to schedule an evaluation to learn how we can help!