What is leukoplakia?

Leukoplakia are white patches that form on the inside of your mouth. They might appear on your tongue, on the inside of your cheek or your lip, or on your gums. Leukoplakia happen when the mucus membranes in your mouth get irritated.

You may be at risk for leukoplakia if you:

  • Smoke
  • Use snuff or chewing tobacco
  • Drink a lot of alcohol
  • Have a rough spot on your teeth, dentures, filling or crown
  • Have HIV/AIDS or a suppressed immune system

Leukoplakia can look white or gray, and you can’t scrape them off. They usually have an uneven shape. Most leukoplakia have a hard, raised surface. They can be painful if you eat or drink something spicy or acidic.

A weakened immune system can cause oral hairy leukoplakia

If your immune system is suppressed, you may notice fuzzy looking leukoplakia (called oral hairy leukoplakia). This is caused by a viral infection in the mouth.

You may be at risk for oral hairy leukoplakia if you’ve had an organ transplant or have a weakened immune system. For people with HIV/AIDS, oral hairy leukoplakia can be an early sign of HIV infection.

What causes leukoplakia?

If you notice white patches in your mouth, talk to your doctor or dentist. He or she will examine your mouth. Experts aren’t exactly sure what causes leukoplakia, so your doctor will have to rule out other things that can cause white patches in the mouth (like thrush, an oral yeast infection) before confirming the diagnosis.

If there’s not another clear cause, your doctor may take a small sample of the leukoplakia and examine it more closely (biopsy).

Sometimes, leukoplakia can be an early warning sign of oral cancer. A biopsy can determine whether oral cancer is causing your leukoplakia.

Leukoplakia treatment options

Treatment for leukoplakia depends on the cause. If it is due to smoking or using smokeless tobacco, you should stop. If alcohol is the cause, your doctor will ask you to drink less. If a rough spot on your teeth or a dental appliance is irritating your mouth and causing leukoplakia, you’ll need to see a dentist to get it fixed.

Talk to your doctor to find out what the best treatment plan is for you. In many cases, removing whatever is irritating your mouth’s mucus membranes makes the leukoplakia go away.


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