Leukoplakia is a potentially malignant lesion affecting the squamous epithelium usually within the oral cavity. Leukoplakia can be associated with a history of chronic tobacco and alcohol use, both of which can synergistically damage the epithelium. Leukoplakia presents as a white plaque that cannot be scraped off. Diagnosis is confirmed with a biopsy. The lesion can be surgically treated, but close observation is always recommended owing to the risk of malignant transformation.

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  • A white patch or plaque
  • Considered a potentially malignant disorder


  • Prevalence:
    • Global: 1.5%–4.3%
    • More prevalent in Southeast Asia
  • 80% of patients are > 40 years of age.
  • Affects more men than women
  • Annual malignant transformation rate: 0.6%–20%

Risk factors

Risk factors are similar to those for squamous cell carcinoma.

  • Tobacco use (most common risk factor)
  • Alcohol consumption 
  • Increasing age
  • Infections: 
    • HPV
    • Chronic candidiasis


  • Exposure to carcinogens → genetic damage or mutations regulating cell turnover and death
  • Occurrence of cell proliferation and hyperkeratosis
  • Recurrent exposure to carcinogens → dysplasia
    • Dysplasia may progress from mild → moderate → severe
    • Carcinoma in situ (CIS) develops → malignancy

Clinical Presentation

General findings

  • Patches or plaques:
    • Affect mucosa
    • Tend to be bright white
    • Cannot be scraped off 
  • Lesions are asymptomatic.

Homogeneous leukoplakia

This form is less likely to be malignant and is characterized by:

  • Uniformly white plaques 
  • Well-defined margins

Nonhomogenous leukoplakia

Nonhomogenous leukoplakia presents a higher risk of malignant transformation and may appear:

  • Irregular
  • Speckled (white and red)
  • Granular
  • Nodular
  • Verrucous/exophytic


  • Oral cavity (most common):
    • Tongue
    • Buccal mucosa
  • Genitalia 
  • Esophagus 
  • Larynx
  • Bladder

Diagnosis and Management


Biopsy is required for a definitive diagnosis, to evaluate for dysplasia, and to rule out other conditions. Findings include:

  • Hyperkeratosis with increased thickness of the stratum corneum
  • Parakeratosis (retention of nuclei in the stratum corneum)
  • Epidermal hyperplasia
  • Atrophy
  • Dysplasia, CIS, or invasive carcinoma may be present.
Histologic images of oral leukoplakia

Histological images of oral leukoplakia demonstrating progressive dysplasia and malignant transformation:
A: Hyperkeratosis with low-grade dysplasia present
B: Moderate dysplasia
C: High-grade dysplasia
D: Leukoplakia in the state of becoming invasive carcinoma
E: Invasive carcinoma

Image: “Representative histological pictures of OPLs and OSCCs” by Yang Yi et al. License: CC BY 2.0


  • Close surveillance is indicated.
  • Elimination of risk factors for all patients, including smoking and alcohol use
  • Medical therapy:
    • Vitamin A
    • Retinoids
    • Carotenoids
    • NSAIDs
  • Surgical management:
    • Options:
      • Surgical excision 
      • Laser ablation
      • Cryosurgery
    • Recommended for:
      • Lesions with moderate-to-severe dysplasia on biopsy 
      • Nonhomogeneous leukoplakia

Differential Diagnosis

  • Candidiasis: a superficial fungal infection caused by Candida species. Candidiasis can commonly occur on the oral mucosa, genitals, and skin folds. Infection of the oral mucosa presents as white plaques that bleed when scraped. The diagnosis is based on a clinical exam and can be confirmed by the identification of yeast on a KOH wet mount. Candidiasis can be treated with oral antifungal medications.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma: a condition caused by the malignant proliferation of atypical keratinocytes. Squamous cell carcinoma is the 2nd most common skin malignancy and usually affects the sun-exposed areas of light-skinned patients. Squamous cell carcinoma presents as a firm, erythematous, keratotic plaque or papule. A biopsy is used to confirm the diagnosis. Surgical excision is the mainstay of management.
  • Erythroplakia: a precancerous lesion that is similar to leukoplakia, which develops from chronic tobacco and alcohol use. Patients usually present with granular, red, sharply demarcated lesions. A biopsy can show dysplastic keratinocytes that can progress to invasive carcinoma. Erythroplakia is commonly treated with surgical excision.
  • Hairy leukoplakia: a lesion caused by EBV mostly in patients who are HIV positive. Patients develop a white patch on the oral mucosa. The patch is often found on the lateral portion of the tongue. Some patients may experience mild pain, dysesthesia, and altered taste. Diagnosis is usually clinical, but biopsy and immunocytopathology may be performed. Management includes antiviral medications, topical retinoids, and cryotherapy. Hairy leukoplakia may resolve spontaneously.


  1. Bishop, J.A., Sciubba, J.J., Taube, J.M. (2017). Leukoplakia and erythroplakia – premalignant squamous lesions of the oral cavity. In Anton, R. (Ed.). Medscape. Retrieved April 14, 2021, from https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1840467-overview
  2. Sciubba, J.J., Narendan, A.R. (2017). Dermatologic manifestations of oral leukoplakia. In James, W.D. (Ed.). Medscape. Retrieved April 14, 2021, from https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1075448-overview
  3. Harris, C.M. (2021). Oral leukoplakia. In Meyers, A.D. (Ed.). Medscape. Retrieved April 14, 2021, from https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/853864-overview
  4. Lodi, G. (2018). Oral leukoplakia. In Corona, R. (Ed.). UpToDate. Retrieved April 14, 2021, from https://www.uptodate.com/contents/oral-leukoplakia
  5. Mohammed, F., Fairozekhan, A.T. (2020). Oral leukoplakia. [online] StatPearls. Retrieved April 14, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK442013/

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