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Leukoplakia is a broad term that defines lesions that appear as white patches found in the inner lining of the mouth. Most of the time, leukoplakias are painless, but it’s important for clinicians to identify the source of the condition, as some leukoplakias indicate more serious problems, like autoimmune disorders, and can even develop into oral cancer.

Signs and symptoms

White patches form on the inside the of the cheek, the gum tissue, the roof or floor of the mouth and the top and bottom of the tongue. The lesions can occur underneath a patient’s dentures as well. People often don’t notice the condition because most instances are painless and asymptomatic. And when patients do notice, they find that the patches cannot be wiped or scraped off.

Some leukoplakia spots include hairy projections adjacent to the white flat surface. The visual cues vary depending on the surface of the mouth where the area is found. Sometimes the edges of the leukoplakia lesion have easily seen borders, whereas other times it’s difficult to see where the lesion starts and the healthy surface begins.

Risk factors

Although the exact cause of leukoplakia is unknown, certain factors put patients at a greater risk. Leukoplakias occur more often in the mouths of tobacco users – both smokers and tobacco chewers. According to the Mayo Clinic, reducing tobacco and alcohol use can help decrease the appearance of the white patches and lower the risk of developing cancerous cell growth.

A malignant transformation can happen when regular cells morph into premalignant or malignant cancerous cells. Leukoplakia lesions can also be a secondary effect of certain conditions like HIV. Patients with immunodeficiencies are at a greater risk for leukoplakia and should check for these types of lesions regularly.

Leukoplakia treatments

Leukoplakia lesions often resolve on their own. But when a lesion persists for more than two weeks, the first course of action includes a visual exam with a dental professional. Most dental professionals include these exams with routine dental exams, but concerned patients can also make an appointment to have an area of concern examined.

If a lesion persists, the patient may have the site biopsied for microscopic examination, according to the American Dental Association. During this process, the dentist or oral pathologist takes a cell sample for the lab to evaluate and look for any abnormal cells.

If patients find white patches in their mouth, they should reach out to their dentist for an examination as soon as they can.