With leukoplakia thickened, white patches form on your gums, the
insides of your cheeks, the bottom of your mouth and, sometimes, your
tongue. These patches can’t be scraped off.
Doctors don’t know what causes leukoplakia but consider chronic
irritation from tobacco — whether smoked, dipped or chewed — to be the
main culprit in its development.
Most leukoplakia patches are noncancerous (benign), though some show
early signs of cancer. Cancers on the bottom of the mouth can occur
next to areas of leukoplakia. And white areas mixed in with red areas
(speckled leukoplakia) may indicate the potential for cancer. So it’s
best to see your dentist or primary care professional if you have
unusual, persistent changes in your mouth.
A type of leukoplakia called hairy leukoplakia, sometimes called oral
hairy leukoplakia, primarily affects people whose immune systems have
been weakened by disease, especially HIV/AIDS.
Although the cause of leukoplakia is unknown, chronic irritation, such
as from tobacco use, including smoking and chewing, appears to be
responsible for most cases. Often, regular users of smokeless tobacco
products eventually develop leukoplakia where they hold the tobacco
against their cheeks.
Other causes may include chronic irritation from: Jagged, broken or
sharp teeth rubbing on tongue surfaces, broken or ill-fitting
dentures, long-term alcohol use.
Leukoplakia usually doesn’t cause permanent damage to tissues in your
mouth. However, leukoplakia increases your risk of oral cancer. Oral
cancers often form near leukoplakia patches, and the patches
themselves may show cancerous changes. Even after leukoplakia patches
are removed, the risk of oral cancer remains.
You may be able to prevent leukoplakia if you avoid all tobacco
products or alcohol use. If you have a weakened immune system, you may
not be able to prevent hairy leukoplakia, but identifying it early can
help you receive appropriate treatment.