With leukoplakia, thick white patches form on the gums, on the inside of the cheekbones, on the lower part of the mouth, and sometimes on the tongue. Patches can be removed by scraping them.
Doctors do not know what causes leukoplakia, but they consider that chronic irritation from smoking, whether smoked, moistened or chewed, is the main cause of their development.
While most patches of leukoplakia are not cancerous (they are benign), some have early signs of cancer. Some cancers of the lower part of the mouth may occur near the foci of leukoplakia. And white spotlights mixed with red spots (speckled leukoplakia) may indicate the potential for cancer to appear. Therefore, it is better to consult with your dentist or primary care professional if you have unusual and persistent changes in the mouth.
A type of leukoplakia called “hairy leukoplakia,” sometimes also called “oral hairy leukoplakia,” primarily affects people whose immune systems have been weakened by disease, especially HIV or AIDS.
In general, leukoplakia occurs in the gums, the inside of the cheeks, the lower part of the mouth (under the tongue), and sometimes on the tongue. It is not usually painful and may go unnoticed for a while.
Leukoplakia can occur:
- As white or grayish patches that do not disappear when cleaning the area
- With flat or irregular texture
- As thickened or hardened areas
- Along with red and bulging lesions (speckled leukoplakia or erythroplasia), which are more likely to show precancerous changes
Hairy leukoplakia causes fuzzy, white patches that resemble folds or roughness, usually on the sides of the tongue. It is often confused with oral candidiasis, an infection that is characterized by creamy white patches that can be cleaned and is also common in people with a weakened immune system.
When to consult the doctor?
Although leukoplakia does not usually cause discomfort, it can sometimes indicate a more serious condition.
Consult your dentist or primary care professional if you have any of the following symptoms:
- White plates or sores in the mouth that do not heal by themselves in a two week period
- White, red, or dark lumps or patches in the mouth
- Persistent changes in the tissues of the mouth
- Earache when swallowing
- Progressive reduction of the ability to open the mouth