Simple Steps To Better Dental Health
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Featuring consumer information from Columbia School of Dental & Oral Surgery
Oral Health Made Simple: Your Prescription For Knowledge
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Step 1 Prevent ProblemsSimplestepsPrevent Problems
Step 2 Understand ConditionsSimplestepsUnderstand Conditions
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space placeholder.What Is It?.
space placeholder.Symptoms.
space placeholder.Diagnosis.
space placeholder.Expected Duration.
space placeholder.Prevention.
space placeholder.Treatment.
space placeholder.When to Call a Professional.
space placeholder.Prognosis.
space placeholder.Additional Info.
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space placeholder.What Is It?
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Leukoplakia is a white or gray-white patch in the mouth that cannot be wiped off. The patches usually develop slowly, over weeks or months. They are rarely cancerous. A test called biopsy may be done to determine if they are cancerous or not. A biopsy involves removing a small section of the patch so it can be examined in a lab. If the patch is small, all of it is removed.

Leukoplakia is more common in people exposed to:

  • Chewing tobacco
  • Cigarette, cigar or pipe smoke
  • Sun on the lips
  • A mouthwash or toothpaste that contains sanguinarine

Leukoplakia is often seen on the lip or inside the cheeks or gums. Patches vary in size. Leukoplakia is usually benign (not cancer). On average, 4% to 5% of these patches develop into oral cancer. Patches in some areas of the mouth are more likely to be cancer:

  • On the tongue
  • On the lip
  • Under the tongue, on the "floor" of the mouth

People infected with HIV sometimes have a condition called oral hairy leukoplakia. It consists of hairy, painless white patches. Usually the patches are on the sides of the tongue. They can be one of the first signs of HIV infection.

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space placeholder.Symptoms
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Leukoplakia often does not cause symptoms. The white patches usually are found by a doctor or dentist. Patches develop slowly. They can be flat or raised. Some develop a rough or pebble-like texture. The ones with red areas around them must be biopsied. Leukoplakia usually is painless.

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space placeholder.Diagnosis
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Your dentist will inspect the patch and try to find out a cause, such as irritation. If removing the irritant does not clear up the patch, your dentist will send you to an oral surgeon or oral pathologist for a biopsy. This involves removing a small piece of the patch. Then a pathologist will look at it under a microscope. The biopsy results will show if the patch contains healthy, precancerous or cancerous cells or signs of another disease.

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space placeholder.Expected Duration
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Most white patches are caused by irritation. They will go away after the source of the irritation is removed. It takes a couple of weeks for them to go away. If they don't go away within two weeks, and your dentist cannot identify another cause, you should have the leukoplakia removed by surgery. Even though you may have no symptoms, the area should be biopsied.

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space placeholder.Prevention
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Regular dental exams can catch leukoplakia early. This is important if the patch contains cancer cells. Even people without teeth should have an oral cancer exam every year.

People who use tobacco in any form are at much higher risk of both leukoplakia and oral cancer. Stopping the use of tobacco is a major way to prevent leukoplakia. Drinking alcohol also increases the risk of oral cancer. Risk is even greater if you use both alcohol and tobacco.

Another way to prevent leukoplakia is to avoid exposing your lips to the sun. You can protect your lips with sunscreen. Many types of lip balm include sunscreen.

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space placeholder.Treatment
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The first step in treating a patch is to look for a cause. If a source of irritation is removed, the patch often disappears.

If you have leukoplakia and you smoke or drink alcohol, the dentist will suggest that you stop. The dentist should look at the white patch again within two weeks for proper healing. If the patch persists, you should have a biopsy. For a large patch, small pieces will be removed from several sites. If the biopsy finds pre-cancerous or cancerous cells, the entire patch should be removed.

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space placeholder.When to Call a Professional
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A dentist or doctor should look at any spot or patch in your mouth that lasts for more than two weeks.

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space placeholder.Prognosis
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Most white patches are harmless. If a patch persists, it may contain pre-cancerous or cancerous cells. The prognosis will depend on what type of cancer it is and whether it has spread.

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space placeholder.Additional Info
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American Academy of Oral Medicine
23607 Highway 99
Suite 2C
Edmonds, WA 98026
Phone: 425-778-6162

American Academy of General Dentistry
560 Lake St.
Sixth Floor
Chicago, IL 60611-6600
Toll-Free: 1-888-243-3368

American Dental Association
211 E. Chicago Ave.
Chicago, IL 60611-2678
Phone: 312-440-2500

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