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What Is Leukoplakia? - Definition, Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Leukoplakia is a disease that forms inside the mouth. Read this lesson to learn about its causes, the symptoms that develop, and the treatment options once leukoplakia is diagnosed.

What is Leukoplakia?

Leukoplakia is a disease that develops in the mouth, and it's most commonly found in seniors. Researchers are still trying to pinpoint its direct cause, but current suspicions are that tobacco use is to blame. The disease manifests itself as white patches found throughout the mouth. In fact, no part of the mouth is safe! These patches may form on the tongue, gums, roof, and cheeks.

Leukoplakia on the bottom of the mouth.
leukoplakia image

Types of Leukoplakia

There are two primary forms of leukoplakia that can develop: standard and hairy. Standard leukoplakia is described throughout this lesson, but it's important to note that hairy leukoplakia also exists. Hairy leukoplakia forms as a result of the Epstein-Barr virus, also known as human herpesvirus 4. This type of leukoplakia is unusual, and you'll usually see it in HIV/AIDS patients.

Causes of Leukoplakia

Scientists are still trying to figure out the exact causes of standard leukoplakia, but as of now, there are a few culprits under consideration. Possible causes include dental issues, like dental work or ill-fitting dentures, excessive alcohol use, too much sun exposure, or use of tobacco products - especially chewing tobacco, which sits directly on the mouth tissues for extended periods of time. In rare cases, leukoplakia may develop as a result of oral cancer.

Symptoms of Leukoplakia

As we already mentioned, the primary symptom of leukoplakia is the formation of thick, slightly raised, uneven, white patches inside the mouth. The time it takes you to develop these patches can vary from a few weeks to a few months. These patches are not usually painful, though sometimes certain foods may cause aches or soreness, like acidic or spicy foods.

Leukoplakia is usually non-cancerous, though sometimes it does lead to cancerous lesions. In this case, the patches in the mouth may also have raised, red sores.

Treatment Options

Typically, leukoplakia is first noticed and diagnosed by a dentist; though occasionally a patient will visit the doctor to have the patches looked at. Usually a biopsy is conducted to confirm the diagnosis.

In many patients, eliminating drinking and tobacco use will be enough for the leukoplakia to go away on its own. If that doesn't work, topical medications may be applied, or the patches can be surgically removed. This could be done either with a scalpel or by freezing the patches off. In any case, the patches may be reoccurring, so it's best to monitor the situation over time.

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