What Is Leukoplakia?
Leukoplakia is a condition in which thick, white patches or lesions appear within the mouth — typically on the gums or inside the cheeks — and is caused by excess cell growth. The sores can vary in appearance but are typically white or gray, and have thick, raised edges with a hard surface. These lesions usually appear within the mouths of smokers or users of smokeless tobacco, but they can also be a symptom of poorly fitting dentures or a sign of someone who habitually chews on the inside of their cheek.
Leukoplakia Signs and Symptoms
While not normally dangerous (most patches are considered benign), a small percentage of leukoplakia instances show early signs of mouth cancers appearing next to the growths. If you notice a sudden blossoming of these growths within your mouth, you should immediately contact your dentist for advice and treatment.
Other symptoms include gray patches that cannot be wiped or scraped away, areas that are irregular or flat-textured (as well as those that may feel thickened or have hardened), or even the appearance of raised, red lesions (called erythroplakia), which are the most likely to indicate precancerous changes occurring in the mouth.
There is another form called hairy leukoplakia that, like oral thrush , affects those with weakened immune systems more adversely. Hairy leukoplakia creates fuzzy, white patches that can be mistaken for oral thrush. Hairy leukoplakia is a result of infections stemming from the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), which remains in the body for your lifetime. While normally dormant, the virus can be activated (or reactivated) due to the weakening of the immune system.
Parts of the population living with HIV/AIDS are far more likely to develop this type of leukoplakia because of their immunity deficiencies. According to Johns Hopkins , as many as 25 percent of HIV-positive people are affected by hairy leukoplakia. Its appearance may mean one of two things — that the HIV is spreading within the body or that their antiretroviral therapy is losing its efficacy in fighting on behalf of the weakened immune system.
While it’s not painful and might not lead to cancer, hairy leukoplakia still may indicate an HIV infection or AIDS. Even once the patches of leukoplakia have been removed, there is still a risk of experiencing some type of oral cancer in the future, so it’s best to remain vigilant about your mouth’s environment until your dentist has given you the all-clear.
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Talk to Your Dental or Medical Specialist About Leukoplakia
If you think you see evidence of leukoplakia, consider a visit with your dentist or primary care physician. It’s possible you may also be referred to an oral surgeon (or otolaryngologist) to be diagnosed and receive treatment.
Before your appointment, write down any questions you might have, e.g., what can be done about it? Will surgery be required? How long should you expect it to last? Is there medication you can take?