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Leukoplakia

Definition

Leukoplakia is a white patch, often inside the mouth, that will not rub off.

What is going on in the body?

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.

Risks

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

The cause is unknown, but smoking or chewing tobacco or excessive alcohol intake appear to be related to most cases of leukoplakia.

Prevention

What can be done to prevent the condition?

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.

Diagnosed

How is the condition diagnosed?

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.

Long Term Effects

What are the long-term effects of the condition?

The primary concern with leukoplakia is that it may be associated with or represent a cancer, which occurs in a small percentage of cases.

Other Risks

What are the risks to others?

Leukoplakia generally poses no risks to others. In rare cases, leukoplakia may indicate an underlying infection that may be contagious.

Treatments

What are the treatments for the condition?

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.

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

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.

After Treatment

What happens after treatment for the condition?

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.

Monitor

How is the condition monitored?

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.

Sources

Dermatology in General Medicine, 1987, Fitzpatrick et al.

Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 14th ed., 1998, Fauci et al.

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