(Hairy Leukoplakia; Smoker’s Keratosis)
by Annie Stuart
Leukoplakia is a disorder of the mouth’s mucus membranes. White patches form on the tongue or inside of the mouth over weeks or months. This can also occur on the vulva in females, but for unknown reasons. One type, known as hairy leukoplakia, is a type found primarily in people who have HIV or other types of severe immune deficiency.
Hairy leukoplakia results from infection with the Epstein-Barr virus.
Leukoplakia usually results from irritants, such as:
Leukoplakia is more common in men after 65 years of age. These other risk factors increase your chance of developing leukoplakia. Tell your doctor if you have any of these risk factors:
Symptoms may include:
In some cases, leukoplakia looks like oral thrush, which is an infection also associated with HIV/AIDS and lowered immune function.
In most cases, a dentist can diagnose leukoplakia with a mouth exam. To confirm a diagnosis or to check for cancer, an oral brush biopsy may be needed. This involves removing some cells with a small brush. It takes only minutes and is painless. A pathologist then checks these cells for signs of cancer. Sometimes the dentist or oral surgeon uses a scalpel to remove cells after numbing the area.
Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Treatment options include:
To help reduce your chance of getting leukoplakia, take the following steps:
American Dental Association
National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research
Canadian Dental Association
Canadian Dental Hygienists Association
Hairy leukoplakia. DermNet NZ website. Available at: http://dermnetnz.org/site-age-specific/hairy-leukoplakia.html . Updated May 22, 2013. Accessed September 18, 2013.
Oral hairy leukoplakia. AETC National Resource Center website. Available at: http://www.aids-ed.org/aidsetc?page=cm-525a_ohl . Updated June 2012. Accessed September 18, 2013.
Last reviewed September 2013 by Michael Woods, MD