Leukoplakia is a white patch, often inside the mouth, that will not rub off.
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.
Repeated, long-term irritation of the surfaces in the mouth is the most common cause of leukoplakia. This may be from:
Other less common causes are inherited conditions and infections.
Leukoplakia generally causes no symptoms other than a change in appearance. Sometimes there may be pain in the area.
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.
A person should avoid the things that cause irritation, such as smoking or excessive alcohol intake. This can prevent many cases of leukoplakia.
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.
Leukoplakia generally poses no risks to others. In rare cases, leukoplakia may indicate an underlying infection that may be contagious.
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.
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.
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.
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
Editor:Smith, Mary Ellen, BS
Reviewer:Eileen McLaughlin, RN, BSN
Dermatology in General Medicine, 1987, Fitzpatrick et al.
Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 14th ed., 1998, Fauci et al.