What is Leukoplakia?
Leukoplakia refers to thick white or gray patches that form on mucosal tissue, usually in the mouth. There may be slight variations in the patches, especially among different types of leukoplakia. It’s usually not a serious condition, but it can indicate a significant underlying health condition.
Types of Leukoplakia
There are four main types of leukoplakia – homogeneous, non-homogeneous, proliferative verrucous leukoplakia (PVL), and oral hairy leukoplakia. Most people who develop leukoplakia experience the homogeneous or non-homogeneous types.
1. Homogeneous vs. Non-homogeneous Leukoplakia
Homogeneous leukoplakia presents as a mostly white patch that’s evenly colored. The patch’s surface can be smooth, wrinkled, or ridged, but it’s consistent over the entire area.
Conversely, non-homogeneous leukoplakia is mainly white or a blend of white and red that’s irregularly shaped. It can be flat, nodular, or raised. This type of leukoplakia is significantly more likely to develop into cancer than the homogeneous type.
2. Proliferative Verrucous Leukoplakia
PVL, also called florid papillomatosis, is a rare condition with strong ties to the Epstein-Barr virus. It may be the most aggressive type of leukoplakia and almost all cases of PVL evolve into cancer. Unfortunately, it’s often diagnosed late and there’s a high chance of recurrence.
3. Oral Hairy Leukoplakia
Like PVL, oral hairy leukoplakia has ties to the Epstein-Barr virus. It usually presents on the tongue as white hairy patches. Oral hairy leukoplakia is common in people with weak immune systems, like those with HIV/AIDS, but doesn’t evolve into cancer.
Causes of Leukoplakia
The exact cause of leukoplakia is unclear, but there are several factors associated with the condition. It’s more common in men than women, and rarely occurs in people under the age of 30.
Factors that increase your chance of developing leukoplakia include heavy tobacco use, chewing a specific tropical nut (the areca or betel nut), and heavy alcohol use. Additionally, poor oral health and inflammatory conditions can cause leukoplakia.
Symptoms of Leukoplakia
Symptoms of leukoplakia vary to some degree but all types present as patches. Usually you develop patches on your tongue, but they can appear elsewhere in your mouth.
- White or gray colored patches that you cannot wipe away.
- The patches look like a thick, raised surface that can feel hard.
- Red or speckled spots may appear and can signal the presence of cancer.
- Hairy oral leukoplakia is the only type to present with hairy or fuzzy growths.
Diagnosis of Leukoplakia
Your doctor or dentist can diagnose leukoplakia during an oral exam. If the patches appear suspicious, you may be referred for further testing, like a biopsy. It’s important to see your dentist as soon as possible if you notice white patches that are painful or exhibit any of these symptoms:
- Nodules or protrusions
- Red or speckled masses, usually with a pebble-like appearance
- Sores or ulcers
Leukoplakia vs. Thrush
Many people mistake oral thrush for leukoplakia, but the conditions are quite different. While thrush also appears as whitish patches it’s usually softer and can bleed more easily. Unlike thrush, leukoplakia patches cannot be wiped away.
How is Leukoplakia Treated?
Usually, leukoplakia patches resolve on their own without treatment. Once they do, it’s important to avoid known triggers, like tobacco, and seek treatment for any underlying conditions that weaken your immune system.
If leukoplakia patches require a biopsy, treatment is necessary. Patches that are positive for cancer need to be surgically removed to keep it from spreading.
Usually, individuals don’t experience permanent damage from leukoplakia, however it can increase your risk of developing cancer. The patches can also signal the presence of cancer or an underlying health condition.
Even if your leukoplakia resolves, it’s important to maintain regular visits with your dentist to monitor for a recurrence. Contact your dentist immediately if you notice a painful or suspicious patch so that they can test for oral cancer, HIV, and AIDS.
Regular check-ups with your dentist are important to your oral health. If you’re due for a check-up or have concerns about your oral health, the team at Jefferson Dental & Orthodontics is here for you. Book an appointment at the office nearest you!