Leukoplakia is a condition characterized by the formation of a thick white patch inside the oral cavity. Leukoplakia can also rarely appear on the inner mucosal surfaces of the digestive tract, urinary tract, and genitals. It is a diagnosis of exclusion – a lesion can only be diagnosed as leukoplakia once all other similar conditions are ruled out. Most leukoplakia is precancerous; oral squamous cell carcinoma is more likely to develop in areas with this lesion.
In many cases the causative agent of leukoplakia is unknown. However, this condition is commonly associated with tobacco use or alcoholism. Infection with Epstein-Barr virus has also been implicated, causing a subtype know as hairy leukoplakia. This virus is extremely common and causes no symptoms unless the immune system becomes suppressed. Therefore, this form of leukoplakia is more common in persons infected with the HIV/AIDS virus. Hairy leukoplakia is much less likely to develop into cancer.
Leukoplakia typically has no symptoms besides the appearance of a thick white patch that cannot be scraped off. These lesions are rarely tender or painful. In many cases the lesion will resolve spontaneously once the causative agent – alcohol or tobacco – has been discontinued.
There are many available treatments for leukoplakia. Surgical excision, cryotherapy, electrocautery, and laser ablation have all been used to successfully remove leukoplakia, but it is unknown whether this reduces risk for the development of malignant disease in the area. Therefore, many physicians will chose to simply monitor the lesion and immediately biopsy any suspicious changes seen. The vast majority of leukoplakia will never progress into squamous cell carcinoma.
Hairy leukoplakia is harder to treat and requires the use of systemic antiviral medications. Even after removal or treatment leukoplakia is prone to reoccurrence. All persistent abnormal growths in the oral cavity should be evaluated by a medical professional. Contact your physician if you are suffering from the symptoms of leukoplakia.