Leukoplakia in the mouth: what causes it?

Leukoplakia (oral leukoplakia) is a disease usually caused by heavy tobacco or alcohol use. The word “white spot” literally means “white spot” (leukocyte means white and plaque indicates a patch).

Besides leukoplakia, there are other causes of oral leukoplakia, such as a fungus in the mouth called thrush, canker sores, and various viruses.

Leukoplakia in the mouth caused by leukoplakia can become cancerous. In fact, according to the Cleveland Clinic, nearly 3 percent to 17.5 percent of people will go on to be diagnosed with a common type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma in about 15 years once vitiligo appears.

Other underlying causes of oral leukoplakia may or may not be related to oral cancer.

Causes of oral leukoplakia

There are many causes of vitiligo in the mouth, including different forms of vitiligo, fungal infections, and various viruses.


Leukoplakia can cause leukoplakia in the mouth due to heavy smoking, chewing tobacco, or drinking alcohol. The two main types of vitiligo are:

  • Homogeneous: A thin patch of uniform color with a uniform appearance, predominantly white; it may be wrinkled or smooth, or it may have a ridged surface.
  • Heterogeneous: predominantly white, red, and irregularly shaped patches. Plaques may be flat or nodular or raised. Heterogeneous plaques may be nodular (spotted) and ulcerated (open ulcers), features that may indicate that vitiligo is more likely to become cancerous than the homogeneous type.

Symptoms and Risk Factors of Vitiligo


A condition called “oral leukoplakia” involves leukoplakia on the tongue or other areas of the mouth.

Oral leukoplakia is associated with Epstein-Barr virus and other causes of weakened immune systems, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

The plaques can look hairy, hence the name. This type of vitiligo persists throughout a person’s life.

Symptoms and treatment of oral leukoplakia

Oral lichen planus

Oral lichen planus is a chronic (long-term) inflammation that involves the mucous membranes in the mouth.

READ ALSO:  What is a lock jaw?

This type of oral spot can be white, red, lacy, or it can appear as red inflamed tissue or lesions (open sores). Symptoms may include:

  • burning sensation
  • pain
  • Discomfort at the site of the lesion


Thrush is caused by an overgrowth of fungi in the mouth. It is considered a fungal infection and is treated with oral antifungal medications.

Thrush is caused by a candida albicans, This can also lead to vaginal infections as well as diaper rash. Symptoms of thrush include white patches that may appear as a white coating on the mouth. Thrush can also cause redness and burning in the mouth.

mouth ulcers

Mouth ulcers usually appear as a single large white patch that may turn red around the white area.

There are several underlying causes of canker sores, including irritation from certain types of foods or beverages, tobacco use, injury from accidentally biting your cheek or lips, and others. Mouth sores are usually painful, but in most cases, they heal on their own.

Oral Cancer

There are several factors involved in whether vitiligo eventually leads to cancer. Examples include:

  • Types of Vitiligo
  • Size and shape of vitiligo
  • Abnormal cells in leukoplakia
  • The location of the leukoplakia (there is conflicting evidence as to whether leukoplakia on the floor of the mouth or under the tongue leads to a higher risk of cancer)
  • The presence of a white or red bump (looks like a pebbles)
  • the presence of ulcers, bleeding, or nodules


Symptoms of vitiligo include:

  • One or more white patches on or under the tongue, or on the inside of the cheek (that cannot be wiped off)
  • no pain or other symptoms

Symptoms associated with other causes of oral leukoplakia include:

  • redness around the white spot
  • pain
  • burning sensation
  • discomfort


Vitiligo is usually first noticed when a person goes to the dentist or has a routine checkup. This is because there are no signs or symptoms of leukoplakia other than the appearance of leukoplakia in the mouth.

READ ALSO:  How to drain fluid from the middle ear

Diagnosis of leukoplakia includes ruling out other causes of oral leukoplakia, such as:

  • Intraoral friction/rubbing caused by dentures (or other causes)
  • Biting the inside of the cheek repeatedly
  • fungal infection (thrush)
  • Lichen planus

If there is no underlying cause of the white patch, a healthcare provider may take a tissue sample and perform a biopsy. The cause of oral leukoplakia may be considered leukoplakia if no causative factor is found during a biopsy. This suggests that the white spots have the potential to become cancerous.

Note: If a dentist is the first to spot leukoplakia, a consultation with a doctor is likely to be made to develop a diagnosis and subsequent treatment (after other causes have been ruled out).


Leukoplakia usually resolves on its own once the causative stimuli (such as smoking or drinking alcohol) are removed. Vitiligo may take weeks or months to go away on its own.

Treatment for vitiligo is aimed at preventing cancer. White patches are usually removed, but they usually reappear spontaneously. Other forms of intervention to treat vitiligo include:

  • preventive measures, such as stopping all tobacco use and consuming any alcohol
  • Make changes to your diet, including adding many different types of fruits and vegetables each day
  • Topical use of vitamin A (retinoids)
  • Oral (oral) vitamin A and beta-carotene supplements (this usually helps clear up white patches, but they usually return once you stop taking vitamin A)
  • Isotretinoin supplements (synthetic derivatives of vitamin A)
  • Surgery to remove the lesion
  • Laser or photodynamic removal of lesions
  • cryotherapy
  • electrocautery


Preventive measures to prevent vitiligo may include:

  • avoid tobacco use
  • maintain good oral hygiene
  • Choose the right toothbrush
  • Seek medical advice when vitiligo first appears in the mouth
  • Follow your doctor’s instructions
READ ALSO:  Reduce respiratory infections

VigorTip words

As with most types of cancer, early intervention is the key to effective treatment. If you notice any type of oral leukoplakia, be sure to consult your healthcare provider as soon as possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When should I worry about white spots in my mouth?

    In most cases, leukoplakia in the mouth is temporary, harmless, and treatable. However, leukoplakia due to leukoplakia can become cancerous.

    Leukoplakia involves one or more white patches in the mouth that cannot be wiped off. Vitiligo can appear on the cheeks, behind the lips, or on or under the tongue. They are not painful and do not have any other symptoms.

    If you see a white patch in your mouth that can’t be wiped off and won’t go away in a few days, make an appointment to see your dentist for a checkup.

  • What are these little white bumps on my tongue?

    One or more tiny white bumps on the upper surface of the tongue is a condition called transient lingual papillitis. Often called lie bumps, they’re inflammations of fungal papillae — flat pink bumps on the top and sides of the tongue.

    Lie bumps can be caused by something you eat or drink that is too hot, too spicy, or too sour. These spots can also come from trauma (ie, tongue biting), poor nutrition, an underlying infection, stress, hormonal fluctuations, or food allergies.

    understand more:

    What is Lie Bump?

  • Can you pop a white lump in your mouth?

    No, don’t try to pop a white lump in your mouth. Trying to pop a spot in your mouth will only cause further damage and prolong the healing process. In most cases, the white pump in the mouth should heal on its own within a few days to a week, depending on the cause.