Leukoplakia 

Introduction 

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Media last reviewed: 25/09/2013

Next review due: 25/09/2015

Hairy leukoplakia

Hairy leukoplakia is a type of leukoplakia that affects people with a weakened immune system (the body’s natural defence against infection and illness), particularly those who have HIV.

It almost always occurs on the side (or both sides) of the tongue and does not cause pain or any change in your sensation of taste. It usually resolves when the immune system improves.

Hairy leukoplakia is usually caused by the Epstein-Barr virus, although antiviral medicines rarely help. Unlike other types of leukoplakia, hairy leukoplakia does not carry a risk of mouth cancer.

However, it should be taken as an important warning sign that your immune system may be weakened. Visit your GP or specialist as soon as possible if you develop hairy leukoplakia.

More information about hairy leukoplakia is available on the NAM aidsmap website, a charity that provides information about HIV and AIDS.

Please note that hairy leukoplakia does not always mean that you have HIV/AIDS.

Leukoplakia is a white patch that develops in the mouth.

The condition is usually painless, but is closely linked to an increased risk of mouth cancer.

Places where the patch can develop include the:

  • lips
  • floor or roof of the mouth
  • inside of the cheek
  • gums
  • tongue

Read more about the symptoms of leukoplakia.

You should see a dentist if you notice a white patch or lump in your mouth that hasn't healed after about 14 days.

As there is no specific test for leukoplakia, your dentist will need to rule out other conditions before they can diagnose it. They may refer you to a specialist for a biopsy, which involves removing a small sample of tissue from the patch. The tissue will be sent to a specialised laboratory to see if it is abnormal and potentially cancerous.

Why does leukoplakia happen?

The exact cause of leukoplakia is unknown, but the use of tobacco, both smoking and chewing tobacco products, is thought to increase the risk of developing it.

Heavy alcohol consumption is also believed to increase the risk of leukoplakia.

Read more about the causes of leukoplakia.

How is leukoplakia treated?

Leukoplakia usually causes no symptoms, and the condition should not affect your quality of life, however, it should be investigated to assess your risk of developing mouth cancer.

Evidence suggests the most effective way of controlling leukoplakia is to stop using tobacco and to drink alcohol in moderation.

Although estimates for people with leukoplakia from different population groups who will develop mouth cancer vary considerably – from around 0.5% to almost 20% – the risk of mouth cancer is thought to be much higher in people who continue to smoke heavily or chew tobacco.

If you are thought to be at high-risk, leukoplakia can be surgically removed to ensure any abnormal cells don't later become cancerous.

Regardless of the treatment you receive, it is important to have your mouth regularly examined by a dentist or suitable specialist to ensure the condition is not progressing.

Read more about treating leukoplakia.

Preventing leukoplakia

The most effective way of preventing leukoplakia is to avoid using any form of tobacco and to reduce alcohol consumption. However, it is not always possible to prevent the condition developing, as it sometimes has no identifiable cause (known as idiopathic leukoplakia).

Read more about stopping smoking and alcohol misuse.

A diet high in fresh fruit and vegetables may also help prevent leukoplakia and mouth cancer.

Read more about food and diet and healthy eating.

How common is leukoplakia?

Leukoplakia is a common condition. It is estimated that slightly fewer than one in 100 people will develop the condition at some point in their life. However, occurrence of leukoplakia is higher in parts of the world where the use of chewing of tobacco and related products is widespread, such as India and Taiwan.

Men are more likely than women to develop leukoplakia and most cases affect adults who are over 50 years old.




Page last reviewed: 22/10/2012

Next review due: 22/10/2014

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