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.
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.
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.
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.
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.