Case Reports

Red patches on the tongue with white borders • history of geographic tongue • incompletely treated celiac disease • Dx?

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A 49-year-old woman presented to our clinic with concerns about the changing appearance of her tongue over the past 2 to 3 weeks. She had been given a diagnosis of celiac disease by her gastroenterologist approximately 5 years earlier. At the time of that diagnosis, she had smooth patches on the surface of her tongue with missing papillae and slightly raised borders. (This gave her tongue a map-like appearance, consistent with geographic tongue [GT].) The patient’s symptoms improved after she started a gluten-free diet, but she reported occasional noncompliance over the past year.

At the current presentation, the patient noted that new lesions on the tongue had started as diffuse shiny red patches surrounded by clearly delineated white borders, ultimately progressing to structural changes. She denied any burning of the tongue or other oral symptoms but reported feelings of anxiety, a “foggy mind,” and diffuse arthralgia for the past several weeks. The patient’s list of medications included vitamin D and magnesium supplements, a multivitamin, and probiotics.

On physical examination, her tongue showed areas of shiny erythematous mucosa and deep central grooves with small radiating furrows giving a wrinkled appearance ­(FIGURE). A review of systems revealed nonspecific abdominal pain including bloating, cramping, and gas for the previous few months. An examination of her throat and oral cavity was unremarkable, and the remainder of the physical examination was normal.

Fissured tongue in a patient with incompletely treated celiac disease


A diagnosis of fissured tongue (FT) was suspected based on the clinical appearance of the patient’s tongue. Laboratory studies including a complete blood count; antinuclear antibody test; rheumatoid factor test; anticyclic citrullinated peptide test; a comprehensive metabolic panel; and thyroid-stimulating hormone, 25-hydroxyvitamin D, and vitamin B₁₂ level tests were performed based on her symptoms and current medications to rule out any other potential diagnoses. All laboratory results were normal, and a tissue transglutaminase IgA test was not repeated because it was positive when previously tested by the gastroenterologist at the time of her celiac disease diagnosis. A diagnosis of FT due to incompletely treated celiac disease was confirmed.


Clinical presentation. FT commonly presents in association with GT,1,2 with some cases of GT naturally progressing to FT.3,4 In most cases, FT is asymptomatic unless debris becomes entrapped in the fissures. Rarely, patients may complain of a burning sensation on the tongue. The clinical appearance of the tongue includes deep grooves with possible malodor or halitosis along with discoloration if trapping of debris and subsequent inflammation occurs.1

Etiology. FT has been linked to celiac disease; systemic conditions such as arthritis, iron deficiency, depression, anxiety, and neuropathy; and poor oral hygiene. Genetics also may play a role, as some cases of FT may be inherited. Getting to the source requires a careful history to uncover signs and symptoms (that may not have been reported until now) and to determine if other family members also have FT. A careful examination of the oral cavity, with an eye toward the patient’s oral hygiene, is also instructive (TABLE).5-8 In general, FT is believed to be a normal tongue variant in less than 10% of the general population.5,6 Additionally, local factors such as ill-fitting prosthesis, infection, parafunctional habits, allergic reaction, xerostomia, and galvanism have been implicated in the etiology of FT.5

Conditions associated with fissured tongue

In most cases, fissured tongue is asymptomatic unless debris becomes entrapped in the fissures.

In our patient, progression of GT to FT was caused by incompletely treated celiac disease. Both FT and GT may represent different reaction patterns caused by the same hematologic and immunologic diseases.3 In fact, the appearance of the tongue may aid in the diagnosis of celiac disease, which has been observed in 15% of patients with GT.7 Fissured tongue also may indicate an inability of the gastrointestinal mucosa to absorb nutrients; therefore, close nutrition monitoring is recommended.9

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