Geographic tongue is a condition that causes a map-like pattern to appear on the tongue. People with this condition have smooth, reddish patches surrounded by white borders on their tongues. The red areas are missing the tiny bumps (papillae) that naturally appear on the surface of the tongue.
Geographic tongue is benign (harmless) and does not cause any long-term health problems. It is not contagious. Most people have no symptoms, but some people feel a burning or stinging sensation on their tongue. Treatment for geographic tongue usually isn’t necessary.
Doctors aren’t sure how many people have geographic tongue. Some doctors estimate that about 3% of the population has the condition, but it may occur more frequently.
Geographic tongue (also called benign migratory glossitis) is slightly more common in young adults, though doctors aren’t sure why. People who have psoriasis (a condition that causes scaly patches on the skin) and reactive arthritis (Reiter's syndrome) are more likely than others to have geographic tongue. The condition appears in people of all ages, including babies and children.
Doctors aren’t sure what causes geographic tongue, but they do know that it is not contagious. Because it often runs in families, doctors believe it may be inherited (passed down) from parents to their children.
People commonly have other conditions along with geographic tongue. These conditions and diseases include:
While many people don’t notice any symptoms at all, the most recognizable sign of geographic tongue is the appearance of the pattern on the tongue. Symptoms can come and go, and may last a few weeks or years. They include:
Doctors diagnose geographic tongue with a physical exam. Your doctor will ask about your symptoms, including any discomfort while eating or drinking.
If you have tongue pain and smooth, red spots on your tongue in a map-like pattern, you could have geographic tongue. While geographic tongue is harmless, you should see your doctor to rule out other medical conditions.
Because geographic tongue is a benign condition, treatment is not necessary. If you feel pain or discomfort, you should avoid eating anything that can irritate your tongue, such as spicy food. To relieve the stinging or burning sensation, your doctor may recommend:
Side effects from NSAIDs are rare, but they can occur. They usually only appear after someone has taken a medication for a long time. Side effects of NSAIDs can include:
Geographic tongue is a harmless condition with no long-term health complications.
To relieve the stinging and burning sensation, you should avoid eating or drinking anything that can irritate your tongue, such as hot or spicy food. You should also avoid chewing tobacco since it can make the pain and stinging worse.
Geographic tongue is harmless. Most people who have geographic tongue have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. A small group of people have recurring pain and discomfort on their tongue. They manage it with pain relievers and by avoiding foods that trigger the pain.
If you have symptoms of geographic tongue, you should visit your doctor to rule out other medical conditions. A red, swollen, or sore tongue could be a sign of another medical problem, so it’s important to see your doctor.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/23/2019.