by Annie Stuart
Caused by chronic irritation, leukoplakia is a disorder of the mouth’s mucus membranes. White patches form on the tongue or inside of the mouth over weeks or months. This can also occur on the vulva in females, but for unknown reasons. One type, known as hairy leukoplakia, is a type found primarily in people who have HIV or other types of severe immune deficiency. Most cases of leukoplakia get better once the source of the irritation is removed. In rare cases, though, the condition can lead to oral cancer. If you notice any signs, see your dentist or doctor.
Hairy leukoplakia results from a virus that becomes active in the body when the immune system becomes weak. Infection may play a role in other cases, as well. Leukoplakia usually results from irritants, such as:
These risk factors increase your chance of developing leukoplakia. Tell your doctor if you have any of these risk factors:
In some cases, leukoplakia resembles oral thrush, an infection also associated with HIV/AIDS and lowered immune function. Leukoplakia is usually harmless, but sometimes leads to cancer. If you have any of these symptoms for more than a week, see your dentist or doctor:
In most cases, a dentist can diagnose leukoplakia with a mouth exam. To confirm a diagnosis or to check for cancer, an oral brush biopsy may be needed. This involves removing some cells with a small brush. It takes only minutes and is painless. A pathologist then checks these cells for signs of cancer. Sometimes the dentist uses a scalpel to remove cells after numbing the area.
Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Treatment options include:
To help reduce your chance of getting leukoplakia, take the following steps:
American Dental Association
National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research
Canadian Dental Association
Canadian Dental Hygienists Association
AETC National Resource Center. Oral hairy leukoplakia. AETC National Resource Center website. Available at: http://www.aids-ed.org/aidsetc?page=cm-525a_ohl . Updated July 2006. Accessed November 10, 2010.
DermNet NZ. Hairy leukoplakia. DermNet NZ website. Available at: http://www.umm.edu/ency/article/001046.htm . Updated July 5, 2010. Accessed November 10, 2010.
Mayo Clinic. Leukoplakia. Mayo Clinic website. Available at: http://www.mayoclinic.com/invoke.cfm?id=DS00458 . Updated November 2, 2010. Accessed November 10, 2010.
Last reviewed September 2012 by Peter Lucas, MD
Last Updated: 09/30/2012