What is Oral hairy leukoplakia, or OHL, is a white patch that appears on the inside of your mouth, usually on the tongue or the gums. Although it’s generally harmless, if left untreated it can be fatal; this condition doesn’t heal on its own and can spread to other areas of your body like your lungs, throat, and tonsils. Read this article to learn more about what oral hairy leukoplakia is and how to treat it if you have it.
What is Oral Hairy Leukoplakia
Oral hairy leukoplakia, often abbreviated as OHL, can be hard to pronounce—even for medical professionals. But don’t let its name fool you; it’s not a form of mange and it’s no laughing matter.
If you have been diagnosed with OHL, or are concerned that you may have an abnormal growth in your mouth (often on your tongue), consult with your dentist about diagnosis and treatment options.
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Oral hairy leukoplakia manifests as a chronic, painless white lesion most commonly found on buccal mucosa in smokers or chewers of betel nut. On average, oral hairy leukoplakia develops at the sites that are exposed to tobacco and/or betel nut.
What causes oral hairy leukoplakia?
Although scientists aren’t sure what causes oral hairy leukoplakia, they have identified a few risk factors. The most significant are smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.
Other risk factors include being infected with human papillomavirus (HPV), being HIV positive, and having a compromised immune system. But many people who develop oral hairy leukoplakia don’t have any of these risk factors or an obvious cause for their condition.
Risk Factors and Causes
It is believed that some cancer treatments increase your risk of developing hairy leukoplakia. This includes cancer treatment with radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy and receiving some medications that suppress your immune system (immunosuppressants). Some people also have a genetic condition called xeroderma pigmentosum (XP), which makes them more likely to develop cancers, including hairy leukoplakia.
Who is at risk for oral hairy leukoplakia?
Elderly people and smokers are at higher risk for oral hairy leukoplakia. In addition, people with a weak immune system, such as those who have HIV/AIDS or leukemia, are at greater risk of developing oral hairy leukoplakia.
Those suffering from periodontal disease or suffering from other forms of inflammation in their mouths may also be susceptible to developing oral hairy leukoplakia.
What are the symptoms of oral hairy leukoplakia?
One of the most common symptoms of oral hairy leukoplakia is a white or grey patch on your tongue, gums, lips or throat. This skin condition can also appear as a thickening and inflammation of these areas. It’s important to note that OHL may be mistaken for other conditions at first, so if you’re experiencing one or more of these symptoms, it’s best to consult with your doctor right away to confirm whether you are suffering from OHL.
Treatment Options and Prognosis
If OHL isn’t considered to be a cancerous lesion, it should have a favorable prognosis. It may resolve on its own or respond to treatment with antibiotics. In severe cases, surgery may be performed to remove all of the affected tissue.
How is oral hairy leukoplakia diagnosed?
In order to diagnose oral hairy leukoplakia, a doctor will examine your mouth using a lighted magnifying lens. While closely inspecting your tongue and gums, he or she will be looking for white patches on your lips that are not typically there.
How is oral hairy leukoplakia treated?
Treatment for oral hairy leukoplakia depends on its severity and location. Treatment options may include topical therapy, laser therapy, surgical excision or cryotherapy. If left untreated, oral hairy leukoplakia can grow into cancerous lesions that spread to other parts of your body, so it’s important to consult with a medical professional if you have any concerns about your health.
What are the complications of oral hairy leukoplakia?
Complications of oral hairy leukoplakia are not common, but if they do occur, they can be severe. Some symptoms to look out for include: difficulty swallowing; throat pain; loss of taste and smell. Other complications can develop into oral cancer.
To minimize these risks, it’s important to visit your dentist regularly and have your doctor check for abnormal lesions on a regular basis. If you suspect that you might have oral hairy leukoplakia, you should see a doctor immediately.
Can oral hairy leukoplakia be prevented?
Although there is no way to completely prevent oral hairy leukoplakia, you can control your risk by reducing your exposure to certain risk factors.
For example, you can reduce your chances of getting oral hairy leukoplakia by avoiding direct contact with substances that have been known to cause other types of cancer. In addition, regular dental care and maintenance can help lower your risk.
When should I call my healthcare provider?
To see if you have oral hairy leukoplakia, a health care provider will examine your mouth. He or she will look for a raised red patch on your tongue or white patches on your palate that does not go away over time. A biopsy may be needed to confirm a diagnosis of oral hairy leukoplakia.
Your provider will use an instrument called a scalpel to remove a small sample of tissue from the area and send it to a lab for analysis.
Key points about oral hairy leukoplakia
- Oral hairy leukoplakia (or OHL) is a precancerous white lesion that grows in and around your mouth, usually on your tongue.
- It can take from months to years for OHL to develop into cancer, though it often goes away on its own without causing any problems.
- People with HIV/AIDS are particularly at risk of developing OHL. It can also be caused by smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.
If OHL doesn’t go away on its own, your doctor may recommend treatment with cryotherapy or chemo. Neither of these treatments is likely to reverse OHL, however, so they’re used to prevent it from developing into cancerous cells.
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