Oral leukoplakia is the development of thick, white patches on the soft tissue of the mouth. This can include gums, tongue, or inner cheeks. The patches form over the course of weeks or months. Hairy leukoplakia is a specific type of leukoplakia that develops in people with weakend immune systems.
Leukoplakia is a change in cells. Over time, some leukoplakia can develop into cancer.
Leukoplakia is an overgrowth of these changed cells. It may develop for no reason. However, it is often associated with regular irritants to the tissue of the mouth such as:
Some leukoplakia may have an association with the human papillomavirus (HPV).
Hairy leukoplakia is associated with Epstein-Barr virus. This virus can exist in your body but only cause problems if there is a weakened immune system, such as HIV.
Leukoplakia is more common in men after age 65. Other factors that may increase your chance of leukoplakia include:
Leukoplakia causes patches on the tongue, gums, or inside of the cheeks. These patches may be:
There may be pain or signs of infection. The patches may also be sensitive to touch, heat, or spicy foods.
Hairy leukoplakia also has white patches but they are fuzzy patches. They also tend to appear on the side of the tongue.
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done, including the area where the patches are. In most cases, oral leukoplakia can be diagnosed during an oral exam.
Certain infections and cancers can cause patches in your mouth. Your doctor may do a brush biopsy to look for cancer or infections. The brush removes some cells to look at under a microscope.
Treatment options include:
If the patches do not fade as expected, the doctor may advise:
To help reduce your chance of leukoplakia:
Mouth Healthy—American Dental Association
National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research
Canadian Dental Association
Dental Hygiene Canada
Hairy leukoplakia. DermNet NZ website. Available at: http://dermnetnz.org/site-age-specific/hairy-leukoplakia.html. Accessed August 22, 2017.
Leukoplakia. American Osteopathic College of Dermatology website. Available at: http://www.aocd.org/?page=Leukoplakia. Accessed August 22, 2017.
Leukoplakia. NHS choices website. Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Leukoplakia/Pages/Introduction.aspx. Updated January 15, 2015. Accessed August 22, 2017.
Oral leukoplakia. DermNet NZ website. Available at: http://dermnetnz.org/site-age-specific/oral-leukoplakia.html. Accessed August 22, 2017.
Oral hairy leukoplakia. AETC National Resource Center website. Available at: http://aidsetc.org/guide/oral-hairy-leukoplakia. Accessed August 22, 2017.
Last reviewed September 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD FAAP Last Updated: 6/11/2015