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Alternative NamesHairy leukoplakia; Smoker's keratosis
Definition Return to top
Leukoplakia is a precancerous lesion that develops on the tongue or the inside of the cheek as a response to chronic irritation. Occasionally, leukoplakia patches develop on the female external genitalia.
Causes Return to top
Leukoplakia is primarily a disorder of the mucous membranes of the mouth. It is caused by irritation. Lesions usually develop on the tongue, but they may also appear on the insides of the cheek.
Irritation may result from rough teeth or rough places on dentures, fillings, and crowns. It may also result from smoking or other tobacco use (smoker's keratosis). Persons who smoke pipes are at high risk for developing this condition, as are those who hold chewing tobacco or snuff in the mouth for a long period of time.
Leukoplakia patches may develop on the female external genital area, but the cause is unknown.
Like other mouth ulcers, leukoplakia may become cancerous.
The disorder is most common in the elderly.
"Hairy" leukoplakia of the mouth is an unusual form of leukoplakia that is seen mostly in HIV-positive people. It may be one of the first signs of HIV infection. It can also appear in others when their immune systems are not working well, such as after a bone marrow transplant. It may be caused by the Epstein-Barr virus.
White patches usually appear on the tongue and sometimes on other places in the mouth. The condition may look like thrush, a type of candida infection that is also associated with HIV and AIDS in adults.
Symptoms Return to top
The primary symptom of leukoplakia is a skin lesion with the following characteristics:
The symptoms of hairy leukoplakia are painless, fuzzy, white patches on the tongue.
Exams and Tests Return to top
The typical white patch of leukoplakia develops slowly, over weeks to months. The lesion may eventually become rough in texture, and may become sensitive to touch, heat, spicy foods, or other irritation.
A biopsy of the lesion confirms the diagnosis. An examination of the biopsy specimen may find changes that indicate oral cancer.
Treatment Return to top
The goal of treatment is to eliminate the lesion. Removal of the source of irritation is important and may lead to disappearance of the lesion.
Surgical removal of the lesion may be necessary. The lesion is usually removed in your health care provider's office with the use of local anesthesia.
Some research has shown that vitamin A or vitamin E may shrink lesions, but this should only be administered with close supervision by a health care provider.
Treatment of leukoplakia on the vulva is the same as treatment of oral lesions.
Outlook (Prognosis) Return to top
Leukoplakia is usually harmless, and lesions usually clear in a few weeks or months after the source of irritation is removed. Approximately 3% of leukoplakia lesions develop cancerous changes.
Hairy leukoplakia is often a sign of HIV infection and an increased likelihood of developing AIDS.
Possible Complications Return to top
When to Contact a Medical Professional Return to top
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you have any lesions resembling leukoplakia or hairy leukoplakia.
Prevention Return to top
Minimize or stop smoking or other tobacco use. Have rough teeth treated and dental appliances repaired promptly.
Safer sexual practices minimize the risk of contracting sexually-transmitted diseases, including HIV.Update Date: 10/5/2007 Updated by: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc. Previously reviewed by Rita Nanda, M.D., Department of Medicine, Section of Hematology/Oncology, University of Chicago Medical Center, Chicago, IL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network (9/11/2006).