White plaques of questionable risk, diagnosed when other known diseases or disorders that carry no risk for oral cancer have been excluded.
Multiple clinical forms exist: homogeneous, speckled, nodular, and verrucous.
May be idiopathic, but is commonly seen in heavy tobacco users and consumers of alcohol or betel.
The majority are histologically benign with a wide range of histological characteristics within this category of lesions.
Certain leukoplakias, particularly non-homogeneous leukoplakias, such as speckled leukoplakia and verrucous leukoplakia, have a significant risk of malignant transformation and require frequent and careful follow-up, often with biopsy confirmation or definition of the biological nature of the leukoplakia over time.
Oral leukoplakia, as traditionally defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), is a predominantly white lesion of the oral mucosa that cannot be characterised as any other definable lesion. Leukoplakia is often associated with tobacco smoking, although idiopathic forms are not rare. An international working group has amended the earlier WHO definition as follows: "The term leukoplakia should be used to recognise white plaques of questionable risk having excluded (other) known diseases or disorders that carry no risk for cancer".
Leukoplakias are commonly homogeneous and most are benign. Non-homogeneous leukoplakia, or so-called speckled leukoplakia or nodular leukoplakia - a predominantly white or white and red lesion (erythroleukoplakia) with an irregular texture that may be flat, nodular, exophytic, or papillary/verrucous - is more likely to be potentially malignant. Histological features of both forms of leukoplakia are variable and may include orthokeratosis or parakeratosis of various degrees, mild inflammation, and variable degrees of epithelial dysplasia. However, although criteria for dysplasia have been defined by the WHO, it is difficult to make an objective categorisation of dysplasia owing to a high inter-observer and intra-observer variation in assessment.
History and exam
Key diagnostic factors
- presence of risk factors
- homogeneous white plaques
- other causes for white lesions excluded
- non-homogeneous appearance
Other diagnostic factors
- male sex
- age >40 years
- tobacco use
- alcohol use
- betel use
- chronic candidiasis
- genetic predisposition
- Fanconi's anaemia
- sunlight exposure
- HPV infection
- Treponema pallidum infection (syphilis)
1st investigations to order
- incisional biopsy
Investigations to consider
- brush biopsy
- autoantibodies for ANA, double-stranded DNA, and Smith antigen
- Treponema pallidum serology
- chemiluminescent spectroscopy
- molecular and chromosomal markers
- Oral squamous cell carcinoma
- Chronic candidiasis
- Submucosal fibrosis
Stopping smokingMore Patient leaflets
- Log in or subscribe to access all of BMJ Best Practice
Use of this content is subject to our disclaimer