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Overview, Causes, & Risk Factors

Leukoplakia is a white patch, often inside the mouth, that will not rub off.

What is going on in the body?

Leukoplakia is caused by irritation of a body surface. This surface can be the tongue, lips, skin, genitals, or other places. Over time these areas of irritation may create slightly raised, thickened whitish areas. These are known as leukoplakia.

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

Repeated, long-term irritation of the surfaces in the mouth is the most common cause of leukoplakia. This may be from:

  • smoking or chewing tobacco
  • excessive alcohol intake
  • dentures that fit poorly
  • scratching or biting
  • radiation therapy
  • Other less common causes are inherited conditions and infections.

    Symptoms & Signs

    What are the signs and symptoms of the condition?

    Leukoplakia generally causes no symptoms other than a change in appearance. Sometimes there may be pain in the area.

    Diagnosis & Tests

    How is the condition diagnosed?

    Leukoplakia is diagnosed mainly by its appearance. The healthcare provider will often rub or scrape the area to see if it comes off. If the lesion comes off with simple rubbing or scraping, it is not leukoplakia.

    Prevention & Expectations

    What can be done to prevent the condition?

    A person should avoid the things that cause irritation, such as smoking or excessive alcohol intake. This can prevent many cases of leukoplakia.

    What are the long-term effects of the condition?

    The primary concern with leukoplakia is that it may represent a cancer, which occurs in about 5% of cases. Leukoplakia can also turn into cancer at a later time, which may occur in up to 1 out of every 5 cases.

    What are the risks to others?

    Leukoplakia generally poses no risks to others. In rare cases, leukoplakia may indicate an underlying infection that may be contagious.

    Treatment & Monitoring

    What are the treatments for the condition?

    A sample of tissue is taken from an area of leukoplakia to see if it is cancerous. This is known as a biopsy. If the lesion is found to be cancerous, it is usually cut out with surgery. This usually cures the cancer.

    If the lesion is benign, or noncancerous, it can be monitored for changes. Sometimes the area of leukoplakia is removed for cosmetic purposes. A person may also want this done to take away any fear of developing cancer in the future. Surgery or medications may be used to remove a noncancerous area of leukoplakia.

    What are the side effects of the treatments?

    Biopsy and surgery may cause bleeding, infection, and allergic reaction to anesthesia. Medications used to remove benign areas of leukoplakia may irritate the skin and cause pain.

    What happens after treatment for the condition?

    If the lesion is removed, the person is cured of the leukoplakia. If the leukoplakia is not removed, the area needs to be checked from time to time to make sure the lesion does not change into cancer.

    How is the condition monitored?

    Monitoring is not usually needed if the lesion is removed entirely. If the leukoplakia is not removed, the area should be checked over time by the person and the healthcare provider to make sure it hasn't changed. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare provider.


    Author:Adam Brochert, MD
    Date Written:
    Editor:Smith, Mary Ellen, BS
    Edit Date:04/20/00
    Reviewer:Eileen McLaughlin, RN, BSN
    Date Reviewed:07/27/01


    Dermatology in General Medicine, 1987, Fitzpatrick et al.

    Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 14th ed., 1998, Fauci et al.