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Geographic tongue, also known as benign migratory glossitis, is a harmless but discomforting condition that mostly affects the top and sides of your tongue. It forms irregular patches on the surface of the tongue that gives the tongue a map-like appearance, hence the name “geographic tongue.”
According to the American Academy of Oral Medicine, it is estimated to affect 1%–2.5% of the population. (1)
Treating Geographic Tongue at Home
Given that geographic tongue is an idiopathic condition with no discernible cause, there is no treatment for it. But there are some ways to alleviate the symptomatic distress associated with this largely benign condition.
Here are some measures that can give your relief:
1. Clean the tongue
As a generally accepted rule of thumb, brushing your teeth twice a day and flossing once a day is enough to maintain good oral hygiene. However, we conveniently skip over the fact that the tongue is also part of our oral cavity in addition to our teeth and gums.
Scraping your tongue regularly, therefore, should be a mandatory step in your oral routine. This will prevent the development of white patches on your tongue. To scrape your tongue, you can use a tongue scraper or a toothbrush with a tongue cleaner.
According to a 2008 study published in the Journal of Applied Oral Science, using a scraper that comes attached to a toothbrush or a conventional tongue scraper has proven effective in terms of breath improvement and reduction of tongue microbiota. (2)
No matter which one you prefer to use, always rinse it clean between each scraping.
2. Make necessary dietary choices
To reduce the discomfort associated with geographic tongue, avoid or limit food irritants that may aggravate the sensitive tissues of your tongue. (3)
Food irritants usually worsen the condition, making it difficult to heal.
- Avoid eating hot, spicy, acidic, or salty foods.
- Avoid tobacco products.
- Avoid heavily flavored candy or other food products.
- Avoid acidic fruits and vegetables.
- Limit your consumption of highly sugary and processed foods.
3. Increase your fluid intake
By keeping your body hydrated, you can ease some discomforts of geographic tongue. To promote hydration, simply increase your fluid intake.
Hydration also stimulates the production of saliva, which in turn promotes oral health. (4)
- Drink ample amount of water throughout the day. You can also suck on small pieces of ice.
- Eat frozen chunks of water-based fruits and vegetables, like watermelon and cucumber.
- Drink smoothies, fruit juice, or vegetable juice.
- Drink 1 to 2 glasses of coconut water daily.
- Drink chilled herbal teas, like green tea or chamomile tea.
- Avoid sugary drinks, and cut down on regular tea, coffee, and alcoholic beverages.
4. Try oil pulling
This ancient Ayurvedic practice can help treat red patches on your tongue by helping with the removal of toxins from your mouth and body. Consequently, it helps prevent foul breath, which is associated with a case of geographic tongue. (5)
A 2011 study published in the Journal of Indian Society of Pedodontics and Preventive Dentistry reports that oil pulling therapy is effective in treating halitosis, or bad breath. (6)
It is, therefore, an effective technique to maintain and promote good oral health.
How to use:
- Put 1 tablespoon of organic, cold-pressed coconut or sesame oil in your mouth.
- Swish the oil around your mouth for about 10 minutes.
- Spit out the oil and rinse your mouth with warm water.
- Brush your teeth as usual.
- Use this remedy daily in the morning before eating anything.
Note: Be mindful not to swallow the oil, and do not spit in the basin since it can lead to clogged pipes.
5. Use aloe vera
The anti-inflammatory and healing properties of aloe vera make it an effective remedy in treating different types of oral problems, including geographic tongue. (7)
What’s more, it helps get rid of bad breath.
How to use:
- Extract the gel from an aloe vera leaf and apply it on your tongue. Wait for 10 minutes before rinsing it off with lukewarm water. Repeat a few times daily.
- Use aloe vera juice to rinse your mouth 2 or 3 times a day.
6. Increase your zinc intake
Zinc deficiency is also associated with geographic tongue and other oral problems.
A 2005 study published in the Journal of Dental Medicine highlights the positive role of zinc in maintaining healthy epithelial tissues and in the treatment of geographic tongue. (8)
Hence, taking zinc supplements or eating more zinc-rich foods may help ameliorate the symptoms of geographic tongue. In addition, zinc promotes a proper and improved sense of taste and smell.
- Zinc supplements come in several forms: tablets, capsules, and lozenges. Consult your doctor for the correct dosage.
- You can also increase your zinc intake with foods, like red meat, fish, oysters, crab, milk, cheese, beans, lentils, fortified breakfast cereals, nuts, seeds, yogurt, kefir, spinach, and other green leafy vegetables.
Causes of Geographic Tongue
The patches on the tongue develop due to the absence of papillae or tiny bumps in the affected area. However, no one really knows what causes it.
Several factors can contribute to it, such as:
- Emotional stress or other psychological factors
- Oral parafunctional habits
- A nutritional deficiency
- Hormonal disturbances
- Family history
- Irritation from hot or spicy foods or alcohol
Moreover, it has been found that geographic tongue may coexist with other disorders, too. Such disorders include:
- Fissured tongue
- Gastrointestinal diseases
- Burning mouth syndrome
- Down syndrome (9)
- This problem is more common in people with psoriasis. Some consider geographic tongue an oral form of psoriasis, (10) although in some studies, it was found that incidences of psoriasis and geographic tongue were independent of each other. (11)
- Anyone can potentially develop geographic tongue, irrespective of age and sex. It is not contagious and also will never turn into cancer. The condition often resolves on its own but may appear again later.
Signs and Symptoms of Geographic Tongue
Geographic tongue is characterized by the following:
- The tongue appears covered by bald, red patches due to the loss of papillae in those regions. These lesions covering the tongue are red, smooth, and irregularly shaped with a white and often elevated border.
- These lesions tend to vary in shape, size, and color and frequently change their location, i.e., the lesion may heal in one spot and move to another.
- In some cases, the tongue may also become sensitive to hot, spicy, or acidic foods.
- Tongue exhibits increased sensitivity and discomfort towards cigarette smoke and toothpaste.
- The red areas sometimes become infected with thrush (candida).
- In addition, there may be sores and burning pain as well as bad breath.
Preventing Geographic Tongue
- As geographic tongue can occur due to a vitamin B deficiency, you need to eat more vitamin B-rich foods. This vitamin can even prevent the recurrence of patches on your tongue.
- Follow proper oral hygiene by brushing your teeth twice daily and flossing regularly.
- Avoid toothpastes with tartar-control additives, heavy flavoring, or whitening agents. Use a mild toothpaste for sensitive teeth instead.
- Manage your stress levels, as stress seems to contribute towards the development of this condition.
Additional Tips to Deal With Geographic Tongue
- You can soak a cotton ball in vegetable glycerin and apply it on your tongue for 5 minutes. Rinse it off thereafter.
- You can even use a glycerin mouthwash 2 or 3 times a day.
- Rub an ice cube on your tongue for temporary relief.
- You can even use an anti-inflammatory steroid topically on your tongue to help reduce the discomfort.
- Develop a routine of detoxification and cleansing, particularly the colon.
When to See a Doctor
Always consult your doctor for a proper diagnosis to rule out the possibility of a more serious underlying condition.
You must see a doctor if you experience any of the following:
- A lesion that lasts longer than 10 days
- Troubled breathing
- Difficulty speaking, chewing, or swallowing
- Severely swollen tongue
There is no cure for geographic tongue, but you can try home remedies and lifestyle measures mentioned in this article to ease the discomfort caused by it.