What is your tongue trying to tell you when it looks like this?
The condition known as Geographic Tongue may look alarming at first glance, but rest assured, it is a harmless and rather common condition that occurs on the tongue’s surface.
What is a Geographic Tongue?
While the tongue normally has small, pink bumps called papillae covering it, the Geographic Tongue occurs when there are areas that are bump free. These smooth areas then appear as red spots and can occur in a variety of patterns.
Interestingly, the papillae appear to be bumps but they are actually small, fine, hair-like projections. It is the area without papillae, so the smooth surfaces, that take on the red appearance and create the designs or “continents” on the Geographic Tongue. Often the red areas are rimmed with a thicker border, adding even more emphasis to the design.
As one area of Geographic Tongue begins to heal, it is common for the pattern to evolve and migrate to another portion of the the tongue. The condition can last for months or years and will often resolve itself suddenly with the chance that it can reoccur again at any time.
Is it serious?
The good news is the condition is essentially harmless, contrary to how shocking it may look when one discovers it. It is not believed to be an indication of a health problem or associated with any illness, infection, or cancer. In some cases, geographic tongue may become inflamed and cause slight discomfort or it may make a person sensitive to certain substances, but these situations are uncommon and create very minor discomfort at most.
What causes it?
Scientists are unsure what causes a Geographic Tongue but do believe that genetics may play a part, in addition to common suspects such as stress, allergies, and hormonal imbalances. Diabetes is also considered as a possible connection. Scientists have yet to be able to pinpoint the exact reason the condition is triggered.
One thing they have identified is that while the condition can migrate throughout the tongue’s surface, they do not believe the pattern will repeat itself in the same location. This means that once an area has lost it’s papillae and then the papillae regrow, it will not usually return to that spot again for a significant amount of time. Instead, it will continue covering the entire surface of the tongue. This can be compared to the process of a forest fire where the fire will continue burning down untouched trees and cannot repeat in previously burned areas until long after, as the vegetation in the area needs to regrow and that can take significant time.
When to see a doctor?
Geographic Tongue is often a harmless condition causing very little to no discomfort or need for concern. However there are other conditions that may present themselves as lesions or spots on the tongue so if you have something that lasts for 7 -10 days, causes significant discomfort, or simply causes you concern, it is important to talk to your doctor or dentist.
Additionally, researchers are currently seeking additional information about the condition in an attempt to better understand its genetic connection, causes, treatments, etc. More specific answers may be available soon so doctors can assess the severity of the condition and propose an appropriate course of action if needed.
If you have any concerns regarding your tongue health, be sure to talk with our team at your next visit.
Changing Lives, One Smile at a Time
Dr. Randall Burba is an AACD accredited dentist, practicing in Salem, MA. He considers himself an artist – with teeth and beyond! He often paints, draws and has a passion for woodworking. Follow Burba Dental Partners on Twitter and Facebook.