Leukoplakia is a white patch in the mouth. If you have a white patch in your mouth that doesn't go away, get it checked by a dentist or GP.

Check if you have leukoplakia

You can also get patches on the floor or roof of your mouth. The patches:

  • aren't painful
  • are an irregular shape
  • are slightly raised
  • may be slightly red within the patch
  • can't be rubbed or scraped away (patches that can be removed could be oral thrush)

There are also a number of other causes of white patches on the tongue.

See a dentist or GP if you have:

  • a white patch in your mouth that hasn't gone away after 2 weeks
  • a white patch on your tongue and a weakened immune system – for example, you have HIV or have had an organ transplant

If you have leukoplakia there's a small risk that it could progress to mouth cancer over time. This is why it's very important to see your dentist or GP if you have a white patch in your mouth.

What happens at your appointment

Your dentist or GP will examine the patch and be able to rule out other possible causes like a fungal infection of the mouth (oral thrush) or cheek biting.

You may be referred to a specialist for a biopsy. A small piece of tissue from the patch will be removed and checked for abnormal cells.

Treatments for leukoplakia

Treatment for leukoplakia isn't always needed but you'll have regular check-ups to make sure the patch isn't getting bigger.

The patch may get smaller or go away if you:

An operation is sometimes needed to remove the patch if there's a risk it could become cancerous.

This may be done while the area is numbed (local anaesthetic) or while you're asleep (general anaesthetic).

The patch can be removed in a number of ways, including using a laser or a surgical scalpel. Your mouth should heal quickly afterwards.

Preventing leukoplakia and mouth cancer

In the UK, leukoplakia is mostly caused by smoking. But sometimes the exact cause isn't known.

There are things you can do to reduce your risk of getting leukoplakia. These may also reduce your chances of getting mouth cancer.


Hairy leukoplakia

Hairy leukoplakia is a type of leukoplakia caused by the Epstein-Barr virus. It often affects people with a weakened immune system, particularly those with HIV and AIDS or who have had an organ transplant and are taking immunosuppressant medication.

It causes fuzzy white patches, often on the sides of the tongue, that look folded or ridged. They aren't painful and can't be brushed or scraped away.

Antiviral medications, or treatments applied directly to the patch, may be prescribed to treat hairy leukoplakia.

Unlike other types of leukoplakia, hairy leukoplakia doesn't carry a risk of mouth cancer.

Page last reviewed: 05/01/2018
Next review due: 05/01/2021

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