By Medically reviewed by hellodoktor


What is leukoplakia?

Leukoplakia is a condition that causes thick, white patches form on your tongue and the lining of your mouth. It is proved that smoking is the most common cause. But other irritants can result in this condition as well.

Mild leukoplakia is usually harmless and often goes away on its own. More serious cases may be linked to oral cancer. These must be treated promptly.

Regular dental care can help prevent recurrences.

How common is leukoplakia?

Leukoplakia is a common condition. It’s estimated that about one in 100 people will develop leukoplakia at some point in their life.

However, leukoplakia rates are higher in parts of the world such as India and Taiwan, where the use of chewing tobacco and related products, such as the areca nut (also known as the betel nut), is widespread.

Men are twice as likely as women to develop leukoplakia, and most cases affect older adults who are 50-70 years of age. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.



What are the symptoms of leukoplakia?

The signs and symptoms of leukoplakia may vary from one person to another.  Leukoplakia is characterized by unusual-looking patches inside your mouth. These patches can vary in appearance and may have the following features:

  • White or gray color
  • Thick, hard, raised surface
  • Hairy (hairy leukoplakia only)
  • Red spots (rare)

Redness may be a sign of cancer, so please consult with your doctor right away if you have patches with red spots.

Leukoplakia most often occurs on your tongue. It can also appear inside your cheeks and on your gums. The patches may take several weeks to develop, and they’re rarely painful.

Some women may develop leukoplakia on the outside of their genitals in the vulva area.

When should I see my 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


What causes leukoplakia?

Until now, the exact cause of leukoplakia is unknown. However, it’s primarily linked to tobacco use. Smoking is the most common cause. But chewing tobacco can also cause leukoplakia.

Some other common causes include:

  • Injury to the inside of your cheek, such as from biting
  • Rough, uneven teeth
  • Dentures, especially if improperly fitted
  • Inflammatory conditions of the body

Besides that, The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is the main cause of hairy leukoplakia. Once you get this virus, it remains in your body permanently. EBV is usually dormant. However, it can cause hairy leukoplakia patches to develop at any time. Outbreaks are more common in people with HIV or other immune problems.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for leukoplakia?

You may have higher risks for this condition if you are experiencing these following conditions:

  • Tobacco use puts you at high risk of leukoplakia and oral cancer
  • Drinking alcohol combined with smoking further increases your risk.

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is leukoplakia diagnosed?

If your doctor suspects you may experience leukoplakia, he or she may perform an oral examination. During the exam, your dentist or primary care doctor can confirm if the patches are leukoplakia. You might mistake the condition for oral thrush. Thrush is a yeast infection of the mouth. The patches it causes are usually softer than leukoplakia patches. They may bleed more easily.

Your dentist or doctor may need to order some other tests to confirm the cause of your spots. This helps them suggest a treatment that may prevent future patches from developing.

If a patch looks suspicious, your dentist or doctor will do a biopsy. To do a biopsy, they remove a small piece of tissue from one or more of your spots. They then send that tissue sample to a pathologist for diagnosis. The goal is to look for signs of oral cancer

How is leukoplakia treated?

Actually, most patches improve on their own and don’t require any treatment. It’s essential to avoid any trigger that may have caused your leukoplakia, such as tobacco use. If it’s related to irritation from a dental problem, your dentist may be able to address this.

If a biopsy comes back positive for oral cancer, the patch must be removed immediately. This can help prevent the spread of the cancer.

Small patches can be removed by a more extensive biopsy using laser therapy or a scalpel. Large leukoplakia patches require oral surgery.

Hairy leukoplakia may not require removal. Your dentist or doctor might prescribe antiviral medications to help stop the patches from growing. Topical ointments containing retinoic acid can also be used to reduce patch size.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage leukoplakia?

Following these tips can help you to prevent leukoplakia:

  • Avoid all tobacco products. Talk to your doctor about methods to help you quit. If friends or family members continue to smoke or chew tobacco, encourage them to have frequent dental checkups. Oral cancers are usually painless until fairly advanced.
  • Avoid or limit alcohol use. Alcohol is a factor in both leukoplakia and oral cancer. Combining alcohol and smoking may make it easier for the harmful chemicals in tobacco to penetrate the tissues in your mouth.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.


Review Date: July 18, 2017 | Last Modified: September 12, 2019

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