Geographic tongue

Alternative names
Patches on the tongue; Tongue - patchy; Benign migratory glossitis

Geographic tongue describes a map-like appearance of your tongue. This results from irregular, denuded patches on its surface.

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

The specific cause of geographic tongue is unknown, although allergies may be involved. Other causes may include irritation from hot or spicy foods, alcohol, or tobacco.

The pattern on the surface of your tongue may change very rapidly. The pattern results from the loss of papillae (tiny finger-like projections on the surface of the tongue). This gives areas of the tongue flat spots, and thus a geographic appearance. These areas of papillae loss are said to be “denuded.” Denuded areas may persist for more than a month.


  • a map-like appearance to the surface of the tongue  
  • smooth, beefy red patches and lesions on the tongue  
  • patches that change location from day to day  
  • soreness and burning pain (in some cases)

Signs and tests
Your doctor will usually diagnose this condition based on an examination of your tongue. Tests are usually not necessary.

There is no treatment.

Expectations (prognosis)

Geographic tongue is a harmless condition, but it can be persistent and uncomfortable.

Calling your health care provider

Call for an appointment with your doctor if the symptoms last longer than 10 days.

Call the local emergency number (such as 911) if:

  • someone’s tongue is severely swollen  
  • someone is having trouble breathing, speaking, chewing, or swallowing

Avoid irritating your tongue with hot or spicy food, alcohol, or tobacco if you are prone to this condition.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 4, 2012
by Janet G. Derge, M.D.

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All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.