Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on August 24, 2020

What Is Leukoplakia?

Leukoplakia is a white or gray patch that shows up on your tongue, the inside of your cheek, or on the floor of your mouth. It’s the mouth's reaction to ongoing (chronic) irritation of the mucous membranes of the mouth. Leukoplakia patches can also develop on the female genital area; however, the cause of this is unknown.

Leukoplakia patches can occur at any time in your life, but it is most common in senior adults.

"Hairy" leukoplakia of the mouth is an unusual form of leukoplakia (caused by the Epstein-Barr virus) that only happens in people who are infected with HIV, have AIDS, or AIDS-related complex. White, fuzzy patches show up on the tongue and sometimes elsewhere in the mouth. It can look like thrush, an infection caused by the fungus Candida which, in adults, usually happens if your immune system is not isn’t working the way it should.

Leukoplakia Symptoms

Leukoplakia patches on your tongue, gums, roof of your mouth, or the inside of the cheeks of your mouth may be:

  • White or gray in color
  • Thick or slightly raised
  • Hardened and rough in texture

These patches may develop and change slowly over weeks to months. They’re usually painless, but they may be sensitive to touch, heat, spicy foods, or other irritation.

Leukoplakia Causes

Causes of leukoplakia include:

Leukoplakia Diagnosis

See your dentist or doctor if you have:

  • White patches or sores that don’t go away in 2 weeks
  • Lumps or white, red, or darkened patches
  • Changing mouth tissue
  • Ear pain when you swallow
  • Trouble opening your jaw

Your dentist may suspect leukoplakia upon examination; but they may take a biopsy to rule out other causes, including oral cancer. During the biopsy, a small piece of tissue from the area will be removed to be examined in a lab. You’ll be given something to numb the area so you won’t feel any pain.

Leukoplakia Treatment

Treatment for leukoplakia, if needed, involves removing the source of irritation. For example, if leukoplakia is caused by a rough tooth or an irregular surface on a denture or a filling, the tooth will be smoothed and dental appliances repaired. If leukoplakia is caused by smoking, you’ll be encouraged to minimize or stop smoking or using other tobacco products.

Leukoplakia is usually harmless, and lesions usually clear in a few weeks or months after the source of irritation is removed. If eliminating the source of irritation is ineffective in reducing leukoplakia, the lesion may need to be surgically removed. The lesion can be removed either by your general dentist or by an oral surgeon.

Hairy leukoplakia needs treatment with an antiviral medication.

Leukoplakia Prevention

The best way to prevent leukoplakia is to avoid the things that may cause it. Try these lifestyle changes:

  • Stop smoking or using tobacco in other ways.
  • Limit your alcohol.
  • Eat a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables.
  • Vitamin A and beta-carotene supplements may help.