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Leukoplakia is the name given to a skin condition characterized by the development of keratosis, or the growth of keratin, on the mucous membranes. The keratosis causes irregular, thickened or textured white patches that usually develop inside the mouth. Oral hairy leukoplakia, on the other hand, is most often caused by contracting the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), which can remain dormant in your body but appear in the mouth if your immune system weakens for any reason.

Oral Hairy Leukoplakia Causes

Tobacco use is well known as one of the most common causes of oral hairy leukoplakia, in both smoking and chewing forms.

People with compromised immune systems due to HIV, AIDS or another autoimmune disorder are more likely to develop oral leukoplakia,  even though they aren’t users of tobacco in any form.

Ill-fitting dentures and bridges can also cause irritation that leads to the development of leukoplakia on mouth tissue.

Difference from Leukoplakia

White patches associated with leukoplakia can develop in other areas of the body besides the mouth, and the hairy variety is uniquely painless. Oral leukoplakia looks very similar to candidiasis or oral thrush, except that the white substance caused by thrush can be wiped away or scraped off the membrane. With hairy leukoplakia, however, the white patches may be hard to the touch and are not easily wiped away.

Cancer Risk

Leukoplakia itself is not a dangerous condition, and hairy leukoplakia is not a popular precursor of cancer. But oral lesions that last for two weeks or longer can develop malignant or premalignant cells. This increases your risk for oral cancer, unless you receive timely treatment and removal of the lesions.

Treatment and Prevention

Treatment for oral hairy leukoplakia usually takes a multi-pronged approach at the doctor’s office:

  • Your dental professional will begin by examining the affected area of your mouth.
  • If the area is small in size, he or she might remove it completely with a scalpel, laser or cyroprobe that freezes the cells. If the area is large, your dentist may refer you to an oral surgeon for a consultation and evaluation of the area.
  • Often you will receive a prescription for antiviral medication, or a topical solution to apply to the lesions to promote healing.
  • The doctor will recommend that you stop or limit your use of alcohol and tobacco or replace your dentures or bridges, depending on the cause identified.

To complement this chairside process, adopt a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, especially those containing antioxidants such as beta carotene. Maintain equally healthy oral hygiene through daily brushing and flossing, as well as a daily mouthrinse to reduce your discomfort until the sores go away.

Don’t stop visiting your dentist once you’re leukoplakia-free! Regular dental checkups are vital to treatment and prevention.