What is Leukoplakia?

D. Jeffress

Leukoplakia is a medical condition that manifests as hard, rough oral lesions. White patches and sores can appear on the the tongue, the gums, the roof of the mouth, or on the inside of the cheeks and lips. The exact cause of the condition is often difficult to detect, though people who use tobacco or have weakened immune systems are at a higher risk of leukoplakia. While most cases do not cause symptoms or pose serious health risks, lesions can occasionally be precursors to oral cancer. An individual who notices abnormal spots or sores in his or her mouth should visit a dentist to obtain a proper diagnosis and treatment.

Mine workers may be susceptible to developing leukoplakia.
Mine workers may be susceptible to developing leukoplakia.

A person with leukoplakia might notice one or more white patches of tissue in his or her mouth. The spots are typically hard and thick, and may appear as open sores. They can be uncomfortable or visually disturbing, but they do not typically cause painful physical symptoms. If a lesion breaks the skin, however, inflammation or infection can occur.

Wearing respirators in a dirty work environment may help prevent leukoplakia.
Wearing respirators in a dirty work environment may help prevent leukoplakia.

There are no known direct causes, but doctors have identified several risk factors for the condition. Long-term smoking and chewing tobacco use are highly correlated with the condition, probably because the chemicals found in tobacco irritate mouth tissue. Individuals who work in industrial settings or mines where the air is polluted with irritants may also see the appearance of lesions. A person with a weakened immune system because of a congenital disorder or an acquired disease such as HIV is at risk of developing the condition as well. HIV sufferers often experience an especially noticeable disorder known as hairy leukoplakia, in which the white spots are accompanied with fuzzy growths.

A dentist may arrange for surgical removal of a mouth lesion that is causing discomfort.
A dentist may arrange for surgical removal of a mouth lesion that is causing discomfort.

The majority of cases are benign, and tend to go away in time. By abstaining from tobacco products and using a respirator when working in dirty conditions, a person can usually prevent future outbreaks. If a lesion appears to be spreading or presents pain, however, it should be examined by a licensed dentist. A dentist can accurately diagnose leukoplakia and rule out other conditions like cancer by taking a biopsy of the tissue.

Chewing tobacco, which can cause leukoplakia.
Chewing tobacco, which can cause leukoplakia.

If biopsy results do not show the presence of abnormal or cancerous cells, a dentist usually instructs the patient to quit using tobacco and maintain a diet rich in antioxidants to promote healthier tissue. If a lesion causes significant discomfort, the dentist may arrange for it to be surgically removed. Cancerous lesions usually need to be treated with a combination of surgery and preventive measures to stop cancer from spreading to other parts of the body.

Smoking cigarettes is linked to the development of leukoplakia.
Smoking cigarettes is linked to the development of leukoplakia.

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Discussion Comments


@burcidi-- There aren't any other symptoms because leukoplakia is the name of the lesions itself.

Sometimes it may not look like a lesion, but a lump. Doctors differentiate between leukoplakia and other lesions by looking at the appearance- color, thickness and how long it has been there. Usually, it lasts much longer than a couple of days. Mine usually last close to two weeks, and return at intervals.

They're not painful, but sometimes it causes some discomfort while I'm eating. And I hate their appearance. Mine are either white or gray and feel different than the rest of my mouth.

You can check out leukoplakia pictures online and compare them to the lesions you get to see if they're similar.


@burcidi-- I'm not too informed on this. I just know that my uncle has leukoplakia from chewing tobacco. He has lesions on the inside of his mouth. His dentist told him that he's at risk for having mouth cancer. But he continues to chew tobacco! Can you believe that?!

As far as I know, hairy tongue leukoplakia also one of the earlier symptoms of an HIV infection. People who are infected usually develop flu like symptoms first and then these mouth lesions. Although I'm sure there are exceptions.

I don't know what other symptoms are seen with leukoplakia. But the next time you get one, you should have your dentist see it.


I've had a white lesion appear in my mouth, on the inside of my cheeks, a couple of times in the past. I just assumed that I wasn't eating well and the lesion was due to lack of vitamins in my diet. So I would take a multivitamin for a couple of days and it would go away on its own. I've never been to a doctor for it.

Does leukoplakia always cause multiple lesions at once, or can it be just one single lesion?

Is it possible for the white lesion I sometimes get to be leukoplakia?

I hope not. It sounds like leukoplakia always has an underlying cause that's important. What else does leukoplakia symptoms include, aside from lesions?

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