Oral Leukoplakia

Small, thickened, white patches on the lining of the mouth or tongue

  • Nearly always occurs over the age of 40
  • Smoking, chewing tobacco, and alcohol abuse are risk factors
  • Gender and genetics are not significant factors

In oral leukoplakia, thickened white patches develop on the lining of the mouth or on the tongue. The patches develop slowly and painlessly, starting most often on the sides of the tongue. Unlike the white patches in the mouth caused by oral thrush (see Candidiasis), leukoplakia patches cannot be scraped off. Sometimes, these patches may harden, causing the surface to crack.


The thickened white patches of oral leukoplakia usually develop on the side of the tongue. The patches often harden and crack.

What are the causes?

Occasionally, the condition is caused by repeated mild damage to one area of the mouth, such as by a roughened tooth, but often the cause is unknown. If there is no obvious cause, there is a small chance that the patch may become cancerous (see Mouth cancer). The risk of cancer is higher if the patch is on the floor of the mouth or is ulcerated. Oral leukoplakia is much more common in smokers and people who chew tobacco. The risk is increased further if people drink excessive alcohol. The disorder nearly always occurs in people over 40.

A form of leukoplakia known as hairy leukoplakia affects people with reduced immunity, especially people with AIDS (see HIV infection and AIDS). White patches occur on the sides of the tongue and have a rough or corrugated surface. Hairy leukoplakia does not usually become cancerous.

What might be done?

An obvious cause for the patches can be treated, and the patches may then disappear. If no cause is found or the condition persists, your doctor or dentist may take a tissue sample from your mouth to exclude mouth cancer. Persistent patches may be removed by surgery or laser treatment. Even with treatment, oral leukoplakia may recur and needs to be monitored regularly.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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