Leukoplakia can develop inside the mouth or on the lip. When it occurs on the lip, the cause is usually over-exposure to the sun’s rays. Inside the mouth, it begins in the mucous membranes, usually on the tongue, floor of the mouth, gums and inner cheeks, and is usually caused by chronic irritation, such as:
- Tobacco or alcohol use
- Rough edges on teeth or dentures
- Biting the inside of the cheek
- Weakened immune system
- History of cancer
Sometimes leukoplakia can develop in the outer female genitals. It is normally seen in the elderly and can develop into squamous cell carcinoma, although this is rare. Approximately 1 to 2 percent of the population will develop leukoplakia. It is more common in men.
Sores inside the mouth are usually white or gray in color but also can be red. The sores are thick and raised. The sores, or patches, usually develop over a period of time, usually weeks or months. The surface often turns rough and may be sensitive to touch and other irritants, such as spicy foods.
Leukoplakia patches are normally painless and can be flat or slightly raised. You may not notice the patches at all. Frequently, it is your dentist or doctor who notices the lesions during a check-up or medical evaluation. It is important to have regular dental check-ups which include examining the mouth for signs of oral cancer. Early detection can greatly reduce the risk of leukoplakia patches developing into cancer.
There are two parts to treatment for leukoplakia. The first is to correct or remove the source of irritation. This may mean correcting rough surfaces on teeth or dentures or avoiding tobacco or alcohol. Removing the chronic irritation may make the lesion go away on its own. If it does not, the second part of treatment will be removal of the lesion. This may require surgery. A portion of the lesion will probably be sent to a laboratory for further testing and to determine if cancer is present.
Leukoplakia itself is rarely fatal and does not normally cause permanent damage, however, the risk of developing oral cancer on or around leukoplakia patches. According to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, between 8 and 15 percent of oral leukoplakia become cancer.
It is important to have regular check-ups where your doctor inspects your mouth for sores as there is a high chance of recurring.
"Leukoplakia," Reviewed 20122, July 20, Reviewed by David C. Dugdale, III, M.D., A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia
"Oral Leukoplakia," Date Unknown, Staff Writer, Brigham and Women’s Hospital
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.