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Leukoplakia: Overview, Causes, Symptoms, Risk Factors & Treatment

What is Leukoplakia?

Leukoplakia is a condition where thick, white patches form on the lining of the cheeks and/or tongue. While it is true that smoking is the usual cause for this condition – hence why it is often called smoker's keratosis) – other irritants may also contribute.

Mild leukoplakia is commonly harmless and typically goes away by itself. However, more severe cases may be associated with oral cancer. Thus, the latter must be given the proper treatment right away. In either scenario, leukoplakia cannot simply be scraped off the tongue.

Meanwhile, more severe cases may be associated with oral cancer. These must be given proper treatment urgently. Luckily, regular dental care can significantly aid thwart recurrences.

What causes Leukoplakia?

Although the primary cause is still unknown, leukoplakia is correlated with tobacco use. One paper found 3 out of 4 tobacco users will develop Leukoplakia at some point in time.

Other causes comprise of:

  • Uneven and rough tongue
  • Ill-fitting dentures
  • Biting the cheek
  • Sun exposure to the lips
  • HIV or AIDS
  • Oral cancer ( even though this is rare)

What are the symptoms of Leukoplakia?

Leukoplakia is identified by strange looking patches. Normally, patches resulting from this condition have the following traits:

  • Irregular of flat-textured
  • Gray or white in color
  • Comes with raised, hard and thick surface
  • The patches barely come with red spots and redness may be an indication of cancer.

In addition, Leukoplakia usually emerges on the tongue. But, gums and cheeks are also susceptible. The patches may take a few weeks to develop. However, these are seldom painful. Some women encounter Leukoplakia in the vulva area which lies outside the genitals.

Hairy Leukoplakia

Hairy Leukoplakia often occurs due to an infection with the Epstein-Barr virus, which remains in the body of the infected individual for life. EBV is dormant but can be triggered when the immune system is weak, especially HIV/AIDS. The reactivation of the virus can lead to hairy Leukoplakia.

Symptoms of Hairy Leukoplakia

For those with hairy Leukoplakia, white, fuzzy patches resembling ridges or folds on the tongue's side can be observed, which can be mistaken for oral thrush.

What increases the risk of Leukoplakia?

Risk factors for Leukoplakia include tobacco and long-term alcohol use. For hairy Leukoplakia, people with HIV/AIDS are more susceptible to develop hairy Leukoplakia.

How Is Leukoplakia Diagnosed?

The dentist may consider Leukoplakia upon thorough examination; but, a biopsy is more recommendable to point out other possible causes like oral cancer. 

When to see a doctor?

There are times when mouth sores can be painful or annoying without being harmful. In some other cases, mouth complications can pinpoint a more severe condition.

  • Lumps, dark, red, or white patches in the mouth
  • Sores or white plaques in the mouth that do not heal by themselves within 2 weeks
  • Persistent changes in the mouth's tissues

To be prepared for the dental appointment, it is helpful to make a list of:

  • Essential dental and medical information like prior instances of symptoms and treatment (if any)
  • The current symptoms, even though these appear unconnected to the condition
  • All supplements, vitamins, and medications which are taken regularly
  • Questions to ask the dentist, primarily from the most vital ones to the least important
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