Rough white patches in your mouth may be a sign that you’ve developed leukoplakia. Often, these mouth sores are caused by one of a variety of irritants, which bother the mucous membranes in your mouth. You may not actually feel anything different in your mouth when you develop leukoplakia — or you may find that these spots get red and sore, especially if you eat acidic or spicy foods or touch them.

In most cases, leukoplakia isn’t a serious issue — simply removing the cause of the irritation allows them to heal. But in other situations, more significant treatments are required, and leukoplakia can increase your risk of something more serious, such as oral cancer. Read on to get the basics on this medical condition, plus how to prevent and treat it.

Causes of Leukoplakia

Leukoplakia is most often caused by irritants that affect the mucous membranes. The most common cause of these mouth sores is tobacco use: Smoking cigarettes or chewing tobacco can irritate the inside of your mouth, creating these rough white spots. Leukoplakia can also be caused by your teeth, dentures or braces rubbing against your mouth, alcohol use or too much sun exposure. In rare instances, these mouth sores could be caused by oral cancer.

Hairy leukoplakia is a unique type of lesion that’s white and hairy in appearance. Hairy leukoplakia develops when you have an immune deficiency — people with HIV, who have had bone marrow transplants or have decreased immunity may be at risk of developing them. “It’s a very common condition in HIV patients, and it’s caused by the Epstein Barr virus,” says Catrise Austin, DDS, of VIP Smiles in New York City.

Symptoms of Leukoplakia

For some people, the lesions are barely noticeable, and the first time they discover they have leukoplakia is in the dentist’s office. But others develop symptoms that could lead them to take a closer look inside their mouth. Here’s what to watch out for regarding leukoplakia:

  • You develop a patch of skin that feels different from the skin around it — especially if it’s raised, rough or hardened.
  • You find that there are places inside of your mouth or tongue that feel sore or irritated, or are sensitive to acidic or spicy foods.
  • You notice areas of the inside of your mouth or tongue that are white or gray in color. If they’re especially raw and irritated, they may have areas of red intermingled.
  • You have patches of skin that look “hairy” in texture.

Preventing Leukoplakia

Leukoplakia is fairly easily to prevent. “Since it is caused mainly by irritation, the only way to prevent is to remove the irritant,” says Barry Bartusiak, DMD, a dentist in Washington, PA. Here’s how to minimize your risk of developing the sores:

  • Quit smoking or using tobacco.
  • Limit your alcohol use.
  • See your dentist if you notice that your teeth, dentures or braces are rubbing your tongue or the inside of your cheek and causing soreness.
  • Wear sunscreen and minimize sun exposure.

Leukoplakia Diagnosis

Most dentists diagnose leukoplakia based on seeing the spots in question during a dental exam. Your dentist may take a small biopsy sample to rule out the possibility that the mouth sore is caused by something more serious, such as oral cancer.

Leukoplakia Treatment

In many cases, simply removing the irritant will allow the mouth sore to heal. So your dentist may recommend quitting smoking or chewing tobacco, or repairing any rough spots in your teeth or dental appliances so that your mouth has time to heal. If removing the irritant doesn’t improve the sore, your dentist may need to perform minor surgery to remove the spot, using a local anesthetic and a scalpel, laser or freezing tool.

If you have hairy leukoplakia, you’ll need to take an antiviral or retinoid-based medicine to clear up the spot, and you’ll need to continue the medication indefinitely to avoid a flareup.

Leukoplakia Complications

In most cases, leukoplakia is a relatively harmless problem. But developing these mouth sores could increase your risk of developing oral cancer, as oral cancers often crop up around the areas where leukoplakia once developed.

Even after the leukoplakia has healed, keep tabs on the spot where the sores occurred to watch out for any unusual changes to the skin.