What Does Geographic Tongue Look Like? Everything to Know

Medically Reviewed By Megan Soliman, MD
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A geographic tongue is a benign inflammatory condition that causes the tongue to have a patchy, “map-like” appearance. Researchers don’t know the exact cause, but certain factors make a person more likely to develop it. Other names for geographic tongue include benign migratory glossitis (BMG) and wandering rash of the tongue.

When the typical symptoms of geographic tongue occur elsewhere in the mouth, it’s called:

  • erythema areata migrans
  • erythema migrans
  • geographic stomatitis

Read on to find out more about the symptoms of geographic tongue and what it looks like. This article also discusses causes and risk factors, treatments, when to contact a doctor, and more.

What does geographic tongue look like?

View the slideshow below for photos of geographic tongue.


Fissured geographic tongue

Kozlovsk, 2006, CC BY-SA 3.0


Geographic tongue

Dimitrios Malamos, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Geographic tongue

Getty Images


Geographic tongue

Jbarta, CC BY-SA

What are the symptoms of geographic tongue?

Symptoms of geographic tongue include:

  • irregularly shaped patches
  • redness or discoloration
  • smooth patches instead of typical tongue bumps
  • “map-like” pattern
  • swollen patches with white lines

Some people may also experience tongue irritation or a burning sensation. This may be more prominent when eating acidic or spicy foods. Learn about other causes of a sore tongue.

Geographic tongue symptoms may appear suddenly. They may last for months or come and go.

Learn about other causes of white patches on the tongue.

What are the causes and risk factors for geographic tongue?

Researchers do not know the exact cause of geographic tongue.

However, certain factors may increase your risk of developing a geographic tongue. These include:

  • family history of geographic tongue
  • personal history of fissured tongue
  • personal history of psoriasis

Certain conditions can also occur alongside geographic tongue. These include:

More research is necessary into the relationship between these conditions and geographic tongue.

What are the treatments for geographic tongue?

You may not require treatment for geographic tongue if it doesn’t cause any bothersome symptoms.

If you do experience symptoms, your doctor may recommend:

  • topical corticosteroids
  • antihistamines
  • topical tacrolimus (Protopic), an immunosuppressant
  • analgesics, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • topical anesthetics, such as benzocaine (Orajel)
  • vitamin A supplements
  • zinc supplements

Your doctor may also recommend avoiding foods and drinks that may trigger your symptoms. This can include hot, spicy, and acidic foods.

When should I see a doctor?

Contact your doctor or dentist as soon as you experience any oral symptoms. They can examine your tongue and mouth and recommend ways to reduce your symptoms.

Regular dental checkups can also help ensure that your dentist can identify any changes in your oral health.

How do doctors diagnose geographic tongue?

To help them reach an accurate diagnosis, your doctor may carry out a physical examination and ask about your full medical history.

They may be able to diagnose geographic tongue based only on the physical appearance of your tongue and the symptoms you experience. In rare cases, they may perform a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis.

How common is geographic tongue?

Around 1–3% of adults worldwide will experience geographic tongue. The condition occurs less frequently among children.

People assigned female at birth are twice as likely to develop geographic tongue than people assigned male at birth.

What are the potential complications of geographic tongue?

Geographic tongue is not associated with any specific complications.


Geographic tongue is an inflammatory condition characterized by irregularly shaped patches in a “map-like” pattern. Symptoms may worsen after eating or drinking anything spicy or acidic.

Treatments for geographic tongue include corticosteroids, antihistamines, topical tacrolimus (Protopic), and topical anesthetics (Orajel). You may not require any treatment if the condition is painless.

Contact your doctor if you have concerns about geographic tongue. They can perform an examination, order any necessary tests to confirm the diagnosis, and recommend treatments.

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Medical Reviewer: Megan Soliman, MD
Last Review Date: 2023 Jan 27
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Keels, M. A., et al. (2020). Geographic tongue. https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/geographic-tongue/
  2. Ngan, V., et al. (2018). Geographic tongue. https://dermnetnz.org/topics/geographic-tongue
  3. Shareef, S., et al. Geographic tongue. (2022). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK554466/