Leukoplakia is a white or gray patch that develops on the tongue or the inside of the cheek. It is the mouth's reaction to chronic irritation of the mucous membranes of the mouth. Leukoplakia patches can also develop on the female genital area; however, the cause of this is unknown.
The growth can occur at any time in your life, but it is most common in the elderly.
"Hairy" leukoplakia of the mouth is an unusual form of leukoplakia that is seen only in people who are infected with HIV, have AIDS, or AIDS-related complex. It consists of fuzzy, hence the name "hairy," white patches on the tongue and less frequently elsewhere in the mouth. It may resemble thrush, an infection caused by the fungus Candida which, in adults, usually occurs if your immune system is not working properly, and may be one of the first signs of infection with the HIV virus.
What Causes Leukoplakia?
- Irritation from rough teeth, fillings, or crowns, or ill-fitting dentures that rub against your cheek or gum
- Chronic smoking, pipe smoking, or other tobacco use
- Sun exposure to the lips
- Oral cancer, although rare
- HIV or AIDS
What Are the Symptoms?
The presence of white or gray colored patches on your tongue, gums, roof of your mouth, or the inside of the cheeks of your mouth may be a sign of leukoplakia. The patch may have developed slowly over weeks to months and be thick, slightly raised, and may eventually take on a hardened and rough texture. It usually is painless, but may be sensitive to touch, heat, spicy foods, or other irritation.
How Is Leukoplakia Diagnosed?
Your dentist may suspect leukoplakia upon examination; however, a biopsy will likely be taken to rule out other causes, such as oral cancer. During the biopsy, a small piece of tissue from the lesion will be removed to be examined in a lab. A numbing agent will be used so that you will not feel any pain.
How Is Leukoplakia Treated?
Treatment, if needed, involves removing the source of irritation. For example, if leukoplakia is caused by a rough tooth or an irregular surface on a denture or filling the tooth will be smoothed and dental appliances repaired. If leukoplakia is caused by smoking, you will be asked to minimize or stop smoking or using other tobacco products.
Leukoplakia is usually harmless, and lesions usually clear in a few weeks or months after the source of irritation is removed. If eliminating the source of irritation is ineffective in reducing leukoplakia, the lesion may need to be surgically removed. The lesion can be removed either by your general dentist or by an oral surgeon in their office under local anesthesia.
Hairy leukoplakia requires treatment with an antiviral medication.
Reviewed by the doctors at The Cleveland Clinic Department of Dentistry.
Edited by Charlotte E. Grayson, MD, May 2005, WebMD.
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