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Geographic Tongue: A Real Pain in the Mouth

Even in my earliest memories about food, I can remember the terrible consequences that would follow when I ate any meal which combined tomatoes and citrus together. Most often it happened if I drank orange juice and ate something with ketchup on it–within minutes, my tongue felt as if it had raised, painful ridges on it, red ridges which itched and burned like crazy and would not be soothed with drinking anything. Ice relief lasted only as long as the ice lasted in my mouth, and then the aggravating itch and burn would be back. Sometimes I resorted to scraping my tongue with my teeth or fingernails, which didn’t really help but made me feel a little less powerless against this until it finally went away (it usually took about an hour).

My mother always called this condition “geographic tongue,” and I learned that members of both sides of my family had experienced this reaction to certain foods or combinations of foods. For my immediate family, we quickly learned to avoid the tomato/citrus combination for my sake, and I became more aware of what I was about to eat. But sometimes it snuck up on me, or I forgot about it until it was too late–like the time I ate a slice of cheese pizza slathered in tomato sauce along with a citrusy drink for school lunch. (Let’s just say getting through third block was VERY interesting…)

However, while doing a bit of casual Googling and Wikipedia-ing about this topic, I noticed that there is more to “geographic tongue” than a simple, silly-sounding temporary food reaction. In fact, this is a medical condition, one that explains far more about my own gustatory habits.

What Exactly IS Geographic Tongue? (Warning, Picture Ahead)

Geographic tongue, aka “benign migratory glossitis” or “erythema migrans,” is a harmless mouth condition that affects about 3 percent of adults around the world. (Yay, I feel special now, LOL.) It seems to be more common in middle-aged and older adults than children, and more common in women than men. Upon eating foods with high acid content or strong flavors (it varies among sufferers), the tongue burns, stings, and/or itches. And, if you look at a geographic tongue, you’ll see patches of red and white all over it in map-like formations which give the condition its name.

As an example: my own tongue.

tongue As you can see, my tongue looks pretty strange–it has always looked patchy like this, even in my childhood. (Bonus: not only do I have strange patterns all over it, but I also have deep fissures in my tongue, which often appear in people with geographic tongue–you can see a big one running right down the center of my tongue in this pic, and there are other smaller ones as well. These fissures tend to exacerbate geographic tongue, producing swelling when already irritating foods get down into the fissures.)

The reason all these weird patches show up is because my tongue is missing papillae (the things that contain taste buds) on the redder parts of my tongue, while the lighter parts have papillae in abundance. The areas of darker and lighter red can change places at random, so you can never tell exactly what my tongue is going to look like (LOL). This “missing papillae” phenomenon doesn’t sound like much, but apparently it’s really important when it comes to processing strong flavors or acidic foods. People still don’t really know why it happens.

Is It Contagious/Dangerous?

If you’re one of the 3% of human beings who has this, do not fret: this is NOT a precancerous/cancerous condition, but rather a “minor annoyance” condition, at least as doctors classify it. (Ha, it doesn’t FEEL minor when it’s happening and you can’t do squat about it!) Also, it seems to have nothing to do with oral hygiene, though a lack of said hygiene can make geographic tongue worse in some cases. If you develop very painful sores or swelling on your tongue that keeps you from breathing correctly, however, get to a doctor ASAP.

Geographic tongue is not contagious; it appears to be purely hereditary, and the same people who have geographic tongue often have allergies, asthma, eczema, and/or are more susceptible to hay fever. There are also suspected links to anemia and psoriasis as well. (Yep, all this is in my family, too. [sarcasm] YAY. [/sarcasm]) Lastly, there may be a connection between geographic tongue and celiac disease, though more research needs to be done.

What Can Cause Geographic Tongue to Flare Up?


Oral Products

Other Triggers

  • Spicy foods (esp. chilies, chili powder/chili sauce)
  • Citrus fruits, especially pineapple
  • Sour foods
  • Oregano
  • Walnuts & pecans
  • Raw spinach
  • Chard
  • Tomatoes
  • Eggplants
  • Really strong cheeses (like bleu cheese)
  • Strongly-flavored candy (esp. peppermint, chocolate, and cinnamon)
  • Alcohol
  • Mouthwashes (esp. with strong flavors)
  • Whitening toothpastes
  • Tobacco (esp. chewing tobacco)
  • Environmental sensitivity (see previous section on heredity)
  • Stress (possibly)
  • Diets high in sugar or processed foods (possibly; needs more research)
  • Vitamin B deficiency
  • Psoriasis flare-up
  • Hormonal changes
  • What Can Help Soothe/Keep Down Geographic Tongue?

    • Vitamin B supplements
    • Zinc supplements
    • Toothpaste for sensitive teeth with no additives
    • Ice (temporarily)
    • Anesthetic mouth rinses
    • Mint gum/lozenges (supposedly)

    (If constantly painful, a doctor can treat geographic tongue with certain topical ointments, antifungal products, or even corticosteroid treatments.)

    Living With Geographic Tongue

    For me, the list of “trigger foods” surprises me; most if not all of those are on my “do-not-eat” list. I never have been able to enjoy cinnamon-flavored gum or candy, for instance, and I’ve always been very particular about the kind of orange juice I get–it’s got to be “Low Acid.” And though I love sweets, too much chocolate with nothing to drink with it leaves me with a burning, “coated”-feeling tongue and throat.

    In light of this condition, my picky eating makes a little more sense, since I’ve been avoiding many foods possibly based on how they make my mouth feel rather than the taste. And it also sheds light on why my tongue often feels so irritated after I brush my teeth, too, since I use a lot of whitening agents and special mouth rinses.

    I don’t know whether adding Vitamin B or zinc would help me, nor am I sure if my geographic tongue might be connected to stress, allergies, psoriasis, etc. But these sure help give clues as to what I can try!

    For Further Reading/Reference

    NIH.gov Article on Geographic Tongue
    Foods that Cause Geographic Tongue
    WebMD.com’s Guide to Geographic Tongue
    Geographic Tongue: Top 10 Causes and Cures
    Geographic Tongue: Wikipedia Article
    Fissured Tongue: Wikipedia Article

    The PC Gamer’s Health Wakeup Call

    Most of us who play games on our computers don’t think twice about doing it. In fact, it’s fairly accepted these days to spend much of your leisure time playing a game while sitting at your computer, whether you’re playing Farmville on a laptop or playing World of Warcraft on your gaming rig.

    But all this sitting still hunched over a keyboard could actually be doing you more harm in the long run, not in terms of hours lost in gaming, but in years lost from your life, and in hours of future pain.

    Think I’m joking, or exaggerating? Sadly, I’m not. And this can affect not only marathon gamers, but marathon computer users in general.

    Sitting Still: A Risk Factor for Several Modern-Day Health Plagues

    A study has shown that sitting too long can increase risk of cancer, especially colon and breast cancer. Other studies have shown an increased risk for type II diabetes and slowed metabolism in people who either choose to be seated more often, or have to be seated for their jobs.

    None of these health conditions are anything we’d wish upon ourselves intentionally. Yet many of us, especially people who are glued to our machines, like I am, may run into these very health problems if we’re not careful.

    I’m not saying that we have to all drop our monthly gaming subscription for a gym membership, but we need to be more aware of how much time we spend sitting. The number of hours may surprise you, if you were to note just how many hours per day you spend sitting in front of the computer. Computer gamers are especially at risk, I believe, because games can become addictive very easily and quickly; we can become absorbed in what’s going on and forget about our physical bodies entirely.

    Other Health Risks Posed by Long-Term Gaming/Computer Use

    But sitting still is not the only thing we need to be worried about, as computer users and gamers. Other, more “minor” conditions like bad posture, eye strain, and poor circulation can haunt us as well. Also, those who type a lot or who work intricately with the keyboard and mouse may suffer neck and shoulder pain, swelling and twitching in the fingers, even arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome. (I’ve often wondered if some of my recent headaches can’t be traced back to bad posture at the keyboard.)

    Computer users, including gamers, strain their backs, eyes, and wrists more often than anything. And, if not treated, all these conditions could put us out of commission in ways we don’t even think about. For instance, I never used to think anything about sitting at my computer and typing/surfing the Internet for ages. Now, though, I find my wrists becoming sore after a while, and I’ve even had shooting pains run through my wrists into the base of my palms (one of the first heralds of carpal tunnel syndrome). Not only does that threaten my continued computer use, but it threatens my budding writing career as well as my piano skills.

    Another thing we don’t think about much is our eating habits while we’re gaming or otherwise using the computer. Sometimes we skip mealtimes because we’re zoned into our technology; sometimes we eat mindlessly in front of the screen like it’s a TV. Neither of these eating strategies are healthy–the former leaves us hungry, out of sorts, and low on blood sugar, while the other can sabotage any efforts we’re trying to make to stay healthy (as well as any efforts at keeping the keyboard clean!).

    As gamers and as computer-literate people, we need to be just as literate about our bodies and how much stress we put them through. It may not feel like we’re doing all that bad by our health, but as evidenced by the pains in my wrists and hands, I am living proof that our health situations can change without much warning.

    Solutions to “Sitting and Gaming” Health Problems

    • After 20 minutes of sitting in front of the computer, get up and walk for 2 minutes. This keeps blood circulating effectively, especially in your lower body.
    • Make sure you’re not slumping in front of the computer screen. This is very difficult when using laptops, but really work at sitting up straighter. I’ve noticed that working to hold myself upright helps me breathe better, and weirdly seems to reduce my wrist pain, too. (Plus, I type a little faster. Strange, but true!)
    • Look away from the computer screen every so often (every 10 or 20 minutes at least), and focus your eyes on something as far away as possible instead of on something close by. This will help your eyes exercise a little so they don’t get strained so fast.
    • Every half-hour, flex your hands and wrists as much as you can, rotating your hand around, clenching and releasing your fists, etc. This is especially important if you’re doing a lot of typing or mouse work–believe me!
    • Trade some of your “sitting and gaming” time for more active gaming time–playing games on a Wii or Kinect system, in which you use your body as part of the controller, can help with circulation and cardiovascular health.
    • If you absolutely have to be at a desk, think about buying or building a treadmill desk–it’s like a standing desk, except that there’s a treadmill surface under your feet, and you have to walk constantly forward to stay at your desk. (This would be great for those times where you’re idly Facebooking and the like.)
    • Keep a small dish of healthier snacks nearby your computer, so that when you do get hungry or do want to munch on something idly, you’re reaching for something at least partially good for you. I like the classic combo of peanut butter on crackers, or whole-wheat crackers and skim-milk string cheese. Others like a selection of chopped-up veggies with a little dip, or even a smoothie or protein shake. Whatever you choose, something with a good amount of protein and fiber will keep the “hungries” away.

    Resources to Learn More

    Sitting Still: Health Risks
    5 Reasons Why Sitting at the Computer Can Be a Health Risk
    Sitting Too Much May Double Your Risk of Dying, Study Shows
    Get Up! Sitting Less Can Add Years to Your Life
    Laptops and Their Impact on Your Health
    Risks Associated with Computer Keyboard Use
    Preventing Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

    Texting and Driving


    About texting and driving: Who do you need to talk to so badly that you’re willing to risk your life to do it?

    I say this because I know people who text and drive all the time, and I’ve even tried it myself. But having tried it–and almost causing a couple of accidents because of it–I don’t understand why people continue to do it. I definitely understand that the conversation is important, and it’s REALLY tempting to try to carry on a text conversation as soon as you receive a message, but personally, I’d rather not have a half-finished text message as my last act on Earth.

    The REAL Dangers of Texting and Driving: Distracted Driving

    This infographic from TextingAndDrivingSafety shows how dangerous this is. When you text, you’ve spent at least 5 seconds not looking at the road, which means you’re covering a lot of ground while not even looking where you’re going. This causes over a million crashes every year, as this Google search will show you.

    Anybody, even the most skilled driver, becomes an erratic driver when their attention is focused elsewhere. You can just tell when there’s a distracted driver ahead of you–they weave between their lane lines (and sometimes cross them), they are either driving way too slow or way too fast for the speed limit, and they either brake randomly or tailgate like crazy. Texting/distracted drivers scare the heck out of me, and for good reason. Thus, I don’t want to scare other drivers with my behavior.

    How to Safely Read (NOT ANSWER) A Text While Driving

    ONLY in emergency situations, if you are waiting for a text to tell you which hospital to go to, or where you need to be ASAP, here is a procedure I have followed:

    1. Make sure there are few to no other cars around (i.e., you’re not on a major highway)
    2. Make sure you are on a straightaway and there are no curves or lack of road shoulders ahead
    3. Hold the phone up on top of the steering wheel with one hand, so you can glance quickly down at the message and then glance back up. You should spend 4 of every 5 seconds looking at the road ahead.

    Notice that I did not say “answer the text”, but “read the text.” If you need to ANSWER the text, pull over onto the side of the road or into a well-lit parking lot to do so, because this is not something you should attempt while the car is moving. (Trust me, I consider myself a master of multitasking, and yet when I tried to text I felt like I was completely out of control of the car. I couldn’t put the phone away fast enough.)

    The Moral:

    Don’t type a text while the car is moving–keep yourself AND others safe on the road!