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A Spoonful of Oral Medicine

Dr Amanda Phoon Nguyen

BDSc (UniMelb), MRACDS (GDP), DClinDent (Oral Med) (UWA), MRACDS (OralMed), Cert ADL, FOMAA, FPFA, FICD

Oral Medicine Specialist

Perth, Western Australia

Welcome to A Spoonful of Oral Medicine, where I dish up bite-sized chunks of oral medicine targeted toward health professionals!

This does not constitute personalised medical advice. Please do not use images without credit.

Please enjoy, and I do hope to hear from you! 

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Hello there!: Blog2
  • Writer's pictureAmanda Phoon Nguyen

Why Are There Patches On My Tongue?

Patches on your tongue may be due to an inflammatory condition called benign migratory glossitis (BMG). This condition has many names, the most common one being ‘geographic tongue’, but medical practitioners may also refer to it as ‘erythema migrans’ or ‘migratory stomatitis’

What Does Geographic Tongue Look Like?

This is a chronic, harmless, and a benign condition. It usually (but not always) affects the tongue’s top and side surfaces. In geographic tongue, red patches are caused because the tongue loses its papillae. Papillae are little projections also known as taste buds. The borders around the red patches might be yellow or white and are often called serpiginous borders because they look like they are “snaking” around the islands. Geographic tongue is often associated with a fissured tongue, which means that the top of the tongue may look grooved. While it may sometimes be symptomatic, but in most cases, it’s painless and patients don’t even feel its presence.

How Does Geographic Tongue Differ From Other Conditions?

If you have geographic tongue, then the red patches on your tongue may move from one area to another every couple of days, or even disappear completely. Sometimes, you can have this condition for months or years, where the patches come and go at different times.

How Common is Geographic Tongue?

This is a very common oral mucosal lesion, and it affects 1-3% of the population. It is slightly more common in males, and a wide range of ages may be affected.

What Causes Geographic Tongue?

The cause of geographic tongue is unknown. It may be associated with a type of skin condition called psoriasis, though this is unconfirmed. However, some researches believe that genetics, family history and environmental factors may play a role. Some individuals with geographic tongue may also have a history of atopy, asthma, eczema, hayfever, or food allergies.

Does Geographic Tongue Need Treatment?

In most cases, geographic tongue does not need treatment. The condition is completely harmless and there is no risk of cancer.

This condition is often diagnosed based on a visual examination by a clinician, and a biopsy is usually not needed.

In cases where patients develop symptoms (ie. discomfort, pain, burning sensation), the use of steroid containing mouthwashes or topical anaesthetics may help, though other possible causes of the symptoms must be excluded. If this condition needs management, it should be under the guidance of a qualified professional.

When Should You See a Doctor/Dentist?

You should see a dentist if you have patches in your mouth, especially if they are uncomfortable or painful.

Take-Home Message

Patches on your tongue may be a condition called benign migratory glossitis (also known as geographic tongue), which is usually diagnosed by clinical appearance, and treatment is rarely required.


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