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Leukoplakia – Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, Pictures

Written by Dr.Mary

What is Leukoplakia?

This is a medical condition where white, thickened patches develop on the gums, on the bottommost area of the mouth, the tongues and the inside cheeks of the mouth. These patches can not simply be rubbed off.


Reasons for leukoplakia are not known but tobacco, including dipped, chewed or smoked, is believed to be the chief aspect for its growth.

Leukoplakia normally is not hazardous but it often can be serious. Most patches of leukoplakia are benign, but a small number can show early cancer symptoms and numerous mouth cancers develop beside the areas of leukoplakia. Therefore, it is advised to see the dentist if an individual has persistent, unusual changes in the mouth.

Leukoplakia Symptoms

Leukoplakia may have appearances that are various. Changes may usually happen on the gums, the bottom of the mouth, the inside of the cheeks as well as, sometimes, the tongue. Leukoplakia can appear as:

  • Grayish or white patches that cannot be scraped away
  • Flat textured or irregular areas
  • Hardened or thickened areas
  • Red, raised lesions that are more likely to show changes that are precancerous

There is a type of leukoplakia referred to as hairy leukoplakia mainly affects individuals whose immunity systems have become weakened by drugs or illnesses such as HIV/AIDS. Hairy leukoplakia develops fuzzy and white patches that look like ridges or folds on the tongue sides. It is frequently mistaken for oral thrush – that is an infection marked by white creamy patches on the area that extend from the top of the esophagus – pharynx – to the back of the throat as well as the insides of the cheeks. Thrush that is oral also is common with individuals with HIV/AIDS.

Often mouth sores may be painful and annoying without being dangerous. But in other cases, problems in the mouth may indicate a condition that is more serious. Therefore, see the dentist if you have any of the following:

  • Sores or plaques of white in the mouth that do not heal on its own within 7 to 10 days
  • Patches that are white, red or dark or lumps in the mouth
  • Changes in the tissues in the mouth that are persistent

Leukoplakia Causes

Reasons for leukoplakia are dependent on what type of leukoplakia – standard or hairy.

Standard Leukoplakia

While the cause of leukoplakia is not known, the use of tobacco, including chewing and smoking, seems to be accountable for the majority of cases. 3 out of 4 users of tobacco products regularly will in due course cultivate leukoplakia in the area where the tobacco is held against the cheeks. Long time use of alcohol as well as other irritants that are chronic can as well contribute to leukoplakia.

Hairy Leukoplakia

This is also known as “oral hairy leukoplakia” and it results from an infection with Epstein-Barr virus – EBV. When an individual is infested with EBV, this virus stays in the body permanently. Usually, this virus is inactive but if the immunity system becomes weakened, either by some medications or from some disease, the virus may become re-activated and this leads to conditions developing such as this type of leukoplakia.

Individuals that live with HIV/AIDS are particularly probable in the development of hairy leukoplakia. While using anti-retroviral medications has lessened the total of cases hairy leukoplakia can still affect at least 25% of HIV positive individuals and in many cases is the very first symptom of infection with HIV. This development of “oral hairy leukoplakia” can as well be a signal that anti-retroviral management is not functioning.

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Normally leukoplakia does not cause any damage that is permanent to the tissues in the mouth. But oral cancer is a possible complication of leukoplakia. Oral cancers normally develop near leukoplakia patches and these patches can often show changes that are cancerous. Even when leukoplakia patches are eliminated the risk of cancer orally still stays elevated.

Hairy leukoplakia is not painful and is not likely to lead to cancer. But it can indicate HIV infection or AIDS.

Leukoplakia Treatment

For the majority of individuals, stopping alcohol and tobacco use will normally clear the condition up. But when this is not effective or the lesions begin to show early indications of cancer, the dentist can refer an individual for treatment that includes:

  • Removal of patches of Leukoplakia – These patches can be eliminated by using a laser, a scalpel or a probe that is extremely cold which will freeze and extinguishes any cancer cells. This cold probe method is known as cryoprobe.
  • Follow-up visits – The recurrences are fairly common.

Since the prognosis is better when leukoplakia is discovered and managed early, when it is small – regular checkups are vital, as is regularly inspecting the mouth for any areas that do not look normal.

Medical professionals have studied the effects of retinoids – byproducts of the vitamin A used to manage acne that is severe as well as other conditions of the skin – on leukoplakia. These appear to only have limited influence in the control of leukoplakia.

Treating hairy leukoplakia

Not every case of this type of leukoplakia needs treating and the dentist or physician might take a “wait and watch” approach. If the individual needs treatment, several methods are available.

Medications that are systemic

These can include antiviral medications such as valacyclovir known as Valtrex and famciclovir known as Famvir that stops the Epstein-Barr virus from reproducing but does not totally rid it from the body. Treatment with antivirals may clear up patches of leukoplakia but these patches will often return as soon as therapy is stopped.

Medications that are topical

These can include “podophyllum resin solution” as well as Tretinoin or retinoic acid. When topically applied, these management therapies may improve the look of the patches of leukoplakia, but once again when the medication is stopped, these patches can return.

Leukoplakia Pictures

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