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What is Oral Leukoplakia?

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  • Written By: Madeleine A.
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 18 August 2016
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Oral leukoplakia generally refers to oral precancerous lesions. Typically, oral leukoplakia is seen on the inner tissue of the cheek, or it may develop anywhere on the tongue. Commonly, leukoplakia develops as a result of chronic irritation. Some sources of irritants that may contribute to the incidence of oral leukoplakia include irritation from ill-fitting dentures, smoking or chewing tobacco. Individuals who chew tobacco usually hold the substance in their mouths for extended periods, contributing to oral irritation.

A condition called hairy leukoplakia is a form of the condition that may be seen in the immune compromised patient. Hairy leukoplakia may be the initial sign of an HIV infection. Although this condition may indicate a sign or symptom of HIV, it may also be caused by post bone marrow transplantation or Epstein Barr viruses.

Oral leukoplakia also may resemble a condition called thrush. Thrush refers to a yeast-like infection caused by a substance called candida. Thrush is commonly associated with immunodeficiency conditions such as HIV.

Typical symptoms of oral leukoplakia may include skin lesions on the tongue and cheeks. Although the lesions are usually gray or white in color, they may also be red. Red oral lesions are referred to as erythroplakia. These mouth lesions may be slightly raised, hard and mildly thickened. Alternately, mouth patches from hairy leukoplakia may appear white and fuzzy. These lesions are typically painless and are usually found on the tongue.

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Generally, a diagnosis of oral leukoplakia can be made after the physician views the lesion. White patches usually develop over months and may become rough and sensitive to heat, touch or food spiciness. Occasionally, the physician may recommend a biopsy of the oral leukoplakia. A biopsy may show changes or mutations that may be diagnostic of oral cancer.

Treatment for oral leukoplakia may include complete elimination of the mouth lesion. Removing irritating sources, such as painful dentures or crowns, may contribute to the healing process. Patients should also quit smoking and chewing tobacco, as these greatly contribute to oral and mucous membrane irritation. Patients are often advised to seek the help of their physician if they are unable to quit using tobacco products on their own.

Occasionally, surgical intervention may be used to excise the lesion. Oral leukoplakias are most often removed in the physician's office or an outpatient setting. Local anesthesia is used to numb the oral cavity, so the lesion may be effectively removed without pain. Most of the time, leukoplakia is benign and harmless. These oral lesions commonly resolve themselves in a few months if irritating sources are effectively removed. Patients are advised to notify their physician if they notice any oral abnormalities.

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