The Cleveland Clinic

Leukoplakia

Introduction

Leukoplakia is a white or gray patch that develops on the tongue or the inside of the cheek. It is the mouth's reaction to chronic irritation of the mucous membranes of the mouth. Leukoplakia patches can also develop on the female genital area; however, the cause of this is unknown.

The growth can occur at any time in your life, but it is most common in the elderly.

"Hairy" leukoplakia of the mouth is an unusual form of leukoplakia that is seen only in people who are infected with HIV, have AIDS, or AIDS-related complex. It consists of fuzzy, hence the name "hairy," white patches on the tongue and less frequently elsewhere in the mouth. It may resemble thrush, an infection caused by the fungus Candida which, in adults, usually occurs if your immune system is not working properly, and may be one of the first signs of infection with the HIV virus.

What Causes Leukoplakia?

  • Irritation from rough teeth, fillings, or crowns, or ill-fitting dentures that rub against your cheek or gum
  • Chronic smoking, pipe smoking, or other tobacco use
  • Sun exposure to the lips
  • Oral cancer, although rare
  • HIV or AIDS

What Are the Symptoms?

The presence of white or gray colored patches on your tongue, gums, roof of your mouth, or the inside of the cheeks of your mouth may be a sign of leukoplakia. The patch may have developed slowly over weeks to months and be thick, slightly raised, and may eventually take on a hardened and rough texture. It usually is painless, but may be sensitive to touch, heat, spicy foods, or other irritation.

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