Leukoplakia is a white patch, often inside the mouth, that will not rub off.
Leukoplakia is caused by irritation of a body surface. This surface can be the tongue, lips, skin, genitals, or other places. Over time these areas of irritation may create slightly raised, thickened whitish areas. These are known as leukoplakia.
Leukoplakia generally causes no symptoms other than a change in appearance. Sometimes there may be pain in the area.
The cause is unknown, but smoking or chewing tobacco or excessive alcohol intake appear to be related to most cases of leukoplakia.
A person should avoid the things that cause irritation, such as smoking or excessive alcohol intake. Stopping the exposures may cause the leukoplakia to improve or sometimes even disappear.
Leukoplakia is diagnosed mainly by its appearance. The healthcare professional will often rub or scrape the area to see if it comes off. If the lesion comes off with simple rubbing or scraping, it is not leukoplakia.
The primary concern with leukoplakia is that it may be associated with or represent a cancer, which occurs in a small percentage of cases.
Leukoplakia generally poses no risks to others. In rare cases, leukoplakia may indicate an underlying infection that may be contagious.
A sample of tissue is taken from an area of leukoplakia to see if it is cancerous. This is known as a biopsy. If the lesion is found to be cancerous, it is usually cut out with surgery. This usually cures the cancer.
Sometimes the area of leukoplakia is removed for cosmetic purposes. A person may also want this done to take away any possibility of developing cancer at that site in the future. Surgery or topical or oral medications may be used to treat leukoplakia.
Biopsy and surgery may cause bleeding, infection, or reactions to anesthesia. Medications used to remove benign areas of leukoplakia may irritate the skin and cause pain.
If the lesion is removed, the person is cured of the leukoplakia. If the leukoplakia is not removed, the area needs to be checked from time to time to make sure the lesion does not progress to cancer.
Monitoring is not usually needed if the lesion is removed entirely. If the leukoplakia is not removed, the area should be checked over time by the person and the healthcare professional to make sure it has not changed. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare professional.
Dermatology in General Medicine, 1987, Fitzpatrick et al.
Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 14th ed., 1998, Fauci et al.