Common tongue diseases

Written by casey kanen
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There are several diseases common to the tongue. Many will also affect the tongue as well as the lips, mouth, throat and pallet. Symptoms associated with these diseases are generally mild and may include swelling, redness, discolouration, tenderness and sores. Likewise, treatment for common tongue diseases is mild and usually incorporates a change in diet or lifestyle.

Geographic Tongue

This disease, also known as benign migratory glossitis, is characterised by a map-like pattern of red spots on the tongue. It usually occurs on the top and sides of the tongue, although it may spread to other portions of the mouth. Geographic tongue is harmless and commonly exists without symptoms beyond basic discolouration. Tenderness or soreness may occur but can be alleviated through topical medication. It is not an infectious disease so cannot be transmitted to another individual.

Black Hairy Tongue

This is a disease caused by excessive growth of the follicles on the tongue, known as papillae. Papillae continue to grow throughout an individual's lifetime. Usually, papillae are worn down over time by daily activity such as eating and brushing. If not worn down, they can grow to atypical lengths. Bacteria can then grow on the papillae, resulting in a blackened or darkened appearance. This usually occurs in individuals with poor dental hygiene.

Burning Mouth Syndrome

Burning mouth syndrome causes loss of taste, burning sensations and the feeling of swelling on the tongue. It is a relatively harmless disease that is not infectious or transferable to another individual. It commonly affects peri-menopausal or post-menopausal women, although 10 to 20 per cent of cases are found in men. The exact cause of burning mouth syndrome is unknown, although it is commonly associated with other medical conditions like nutritional deficiency.


HSV-1, or herpes simplex virus 1, is a viral infection that sometimes causes sores on the tongue. Sores are generally red and swollen but may have a white or greenish cap. There is no cure for HSV-1, but symptoms like pain and tenderness usually pass with time or antiviral medication. HSV-1 is easily transferable, even through saliva shared by casual kissing. It is hereditary and commonly runs in families.


These tongue diseases are mostly harmless and do not require extensive treatment. However, even mild symptoms can be aggravated by certain foods and substances. If you have geographic tongue, avoid eating spicy or acidic foods. Use a corticosteroid rinse and swish out your mouth 2 to 3 times a day. Avoid excessively salty or citrusy foods if you have HSV-1.

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