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What Is Leukoplakia?

Leukoplakia is a whitish-color patch that grows on the inside of the cheeks, gums, or tongue.The spot may go unnoticed or may feel sensitive to touch, heat, and spicy foods. It can become thick, hardened, and slightly raised. In a condition called “hairy” leukoplakia, patches may also appear fuzzy.

Leukoplakia may be caused by chronic irritation, but the source of the irritation may vary. For instance, tobacco use — particularly smoking pipes and chewing tobacco — can lead to leukoplakia. Rough teeth as well as dentures, fillings, or crowns that fit poorly can cause the condition. So can the habit of chewing on the inside of the cheek.

Although leukoplakia is usually harmless, about one in four cases may become cancerous. If you or your dentist notices leukoplakia in your mouth, a biopsy of the lesion will determine whether or not it is cancerous. For the biopsy, your dentist removes a sample of tissue from the affected area and has it examined it under a microscope.

Leukoplakia is treated by getting rid of the lesion. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to remove the lesion. Sometimes, removing the source of the irritation can make it go away. This may involve:

  • Attending to dental issues that are causing the problem, such as fixing rough teeth or repairing dental appliances that don’t fit properly

  • Quitting cigarettes or other tobacco products

  • Avoiding alcohol, which is another risk factor

“Mouth Sores.” Mouth Healthy, American Dental Association. http://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/m/mouth-sores Accessed 2013.

“Leukoplakia.” Medline Plus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001046.htm Accessed 2013.

“What You Need To Know About Oral Cancer.” National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/wyntk/oral/page1 Accessed 2013.

“What Are Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers?” American Cancer Society, February 26, 2013. www.cancer.org/Cancer/OralCavityandOropharyngealCancer/DetailedGuide/oral-cavity-and-oropharyngeal-cancer-what-is-oral-cavity-cancer Accessed 2013.

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