Leukoplakia is a condition in which difficult to remove thick, white patches appear in the mouth on the inner cheeks, bottom of the mouth, gums or on the tongue. While most patches are benign, it is considered a pre-cancerous condition since approximately 3% of patches do show early signs of cancer. In many cases, oral cancers appear near patches.
Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common form of oral cancer. Left untreated, it can have destructive effects on the surrounding tissue. Aggressive forms may also spread (metastasise) to other parts of the body.
While the exact cause of this condition is unknown, it is believed that mouth irritation from ill-fitting dentures or rough teeth, use of tobacco and poor oral hygiene are to blame. It is most common in the elderly population with over 95% of oral cancers appearing in those over forty. However, there is a variation that occurs in HIV positive patients, individuals with Epstein-Barr virus, and those with compromised immune systems, such as those taking immuno-suppressants after a transplant.
Poor oral hygiene has been linked to leukoplakia. Failure to properly care for the mouth can lead to gingivitis or periodontitis. In scientific studies, those with periodontitis were more likely to be diagnosed with oral cancer. This may be due to the infection that accompanies the disease leaving the mouth vulnerable.
Dental experts say that periodontitis is easily preventable. Brushing and flossing daily can reduce the chance of this condition. When combined with regular checkups to clean teeth or treat dental issues, the risk is greatly decreased.
Regular dentist visits are necessary for early detection of leukoplakia. As with most cancers, the earlier it is detected, the better chance the patient has of surviving. If the white patches are present, the dentist will do a biopsy, a procedure in which a sample of potentially harmful tissues is removed in order to perform microscopic or chemical analysis. The biopsy will let the dentist know whether the patches are cancerous so he or she can perform appropriate treatment to prevent it from metastasising.
Regular checkups may also help prevent the occurrence of patches in the first place. Since patches are believed to be caused by irritation and poor oral hygiene, the dentist can address these issues. Repairing or pulling rough or damaged teeth, molding new dentures and removing tartar and plaque will reduce the risk.
If suspicious patches appear in the mouth between regular dental checkups, patients should schedule an appointment for evaluation as soon as possible. In some cases, it may be only thrush, a yeast infection which also causes white patches in the mouth. However, assuming the patches are only thrush could be dangerous. Any patches should be evaluated by a dentist to determine whether biopsy is needed.
While leukoplakia is benign in most cases, it’s best to make efforts to prevent its occurrence in the first place. With good oral hygiene and regular dentist visits, your risks of falling in the small percentage of malignant cases are significantly reduced.
A Hurrell is a high risk candidate for skin cancer and is passionate about researching ways to prevent it.