With leukoplakia (loo-koh-PLAY-key-uh), thickened, white patches form on your gums, the insides of your cheeks, the bottom of your mouth and, sometimes, your tongue. These patches can't be scraped off.
Doctors don't know what causes leukoplakia but consider chronic irritation from tobacco — whether smoked, dipped or chewed — to be the main culprit in its development.
Most leukoplakia patches are noncancerous (benign), though some show early signs of cancer. Cancers on the bottom of the mouth can occur next to areas of leukoplakia. And white areas mixed in with red areas (speckled leukoplakia) may indicate the potential for cancer. So it's best to see your dentist or primary care professional if you have unusual, persistent changes in your mouth.
A type of leukoplakia called hairy leukoplakia, sometimes called oral hairy leukoplakia, primarily affects people whose immune systems have been weakened by disease, especially HIV/AIDS.
Leukoplakia usually occurs on your gums, the insides of your cheeks, the bottom of your mouth — beneath the tongue — and, sometimes, your tongue. It isn't usually painful and may go unnoticed for a while.
Leukoplakia may appear:
- White or grayish in patches that can't be wiped away
- Irregular or flat-textured
- Thickened or hardened in areas
- Along with raised, red lesions (speckled leukoplakia or erythroplakia), which are more likely to show precancerous changes
Hairy leukoplakia causes fuzzy, white patches that resemble folds or ridges, usually on the sides of your tongue. It's often mistaken for oral thrush, an infection marked by creamy white patches that can be wiped away, which is also common in people with a weakened immune system.
When to see a doctor
Even though leukoplakia doesn't usually cause discomfort, sometimes it can indicate a more serious condition.
See your dentist or primary care professional if you have any of the following:
- White plaques or sores in your mouth that don't heal on their own within two weeks
- Lumps or white, red or dark patches in your mouth
- Persistent changes in the tissues of your mouth
- Ear pain when swallowing
- Progressive reduction in the ability to open your jaw
Although the cause of leukoplakia is unknown, chronic irritation, such as from tobacco use, including smoking and chewing, appears to be responsible for most cases. Often, regular users of smokeless tobacco products eventually develop leukoplakia where they hold the tobacco against their cheeks.
Other causes may include chronic irritation from:
- Jagged, broken or sharp teeth rubbing on tongue surfaces
- Broken or ill-fitting dentures
- Long-term alcohol use
Your dentist can talk with you about what may be causing leukoplakia in your case.
Hairy leukoplakia results from infection with the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). Once you've been infected with EBV, the virus remains in your body for life. Normally, the virus is dormant, but if your immune system is weakened, especially from HIV/AIDS, the virus can become reactivated, leading to conditions such as hairy leukoplakia.
Tobacco use, particularly smokeless tobacco, puts you at high risk of leukoplakia and oral cancer. Long-term alcohol use increases your risk, and drinking alcohol combined with smoking increases your risk even more.
People with HIV/AIDS are especially likely to develop hairy leukoplakia. Although the use of antiretroviral drugs has reduced the number of cases, hairy leukoplakia still affects a number of HIV-positive people, and it may be one of the first signs of HIV infection.
Leukoplakia usually doesn't cause permanent damage to tissues in your mouth. However, leukoplakia increases your risk of oral cancer. Oral cancers often form near leukoplakia patches, and the patches themselves may show cancerous changes. Even after leukoplakia patches are removed, the risk of oral cancer remains.
Hairy leukoplakia isn't likely to lead to cancer. But it may indicate HIV/AIDS.
You may be able to prevent leukoplakia if you avoid all tobacco products or alcohol use. Talk to your doctor about methods to help you quit. If you continue to smoke or chew tobacco or drink alcohol, have frequent dental checkups. Oral cancers are usually painless until fairly advanced, so quitting tobacco and alcohol is a better prevention strategy.
If you have a weakened immune system, you may not be able to prevent hairy leukoplakia, but identifying it early can help you receive appropriate treatment.