White Spots on Gums: Causes and Remedies

Any time you notice a change in the mouth, you may be tempted to panic. If you suddenly start to see one or several white patches on the inside of your mouth, on your gums, or on your tongue, it’s easy to worry about possible causes. In general, such white patches on gums are benign. But, it’s always worth having any changes in your mouth checked out by a healthcare professional.

Are the White Spots on Your Gums Cancer?

Probably not, but it could be. In general, white spots or white patches on gums are caused by an overgrowth of tissue called leukoplakia. The spots are thicker than their surroundings and cannot be rubbed off or easily scraped away. Usually, they are benign, but, occasionally, they can be an early marker of cancer. It’s important to get any odd white patches in the mouth checked out by a pro.

Leukoplakia can be caused by a variety factors. It can be something as simple as rubbing from ill-fitting dental appliances or a rough tooth surface causing irritation. Tobacco use or chronic alcohol abuse can also cause patches to develop. There’s even a very rare form that develops in patients with HIV.

White Spots on Gums & Leukoplakia

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is leukoplakia?

A: Leukoplakia is a condition in your mouth where areas of thickened, whitish patches grow. The membranes in your mouth that keep it moisturized overgrow to the point where they are constantly irritated. The patches can’t simply be scraped away. Leukoplakia may have been growing in your mouth for a while before you noticed it. In general, it doesn’t hurt, although it can be sensitive to pressure, heat, or spicy foods. Sometimes, leukoplakia can cause trouble swallowing if it grows for a long time. The patches may be multicolored, having red splotches or gray streaks. Hairy leukoplakia has a fuzzy (or hairy) appearance, but, unlike the oral thrush it resembles, it doesn’t scrape off.

Q: What causes leukoplakia?

A: Leukoplakia is by far most common in tobacco users. Smokeless tobacco users generally develop leukoplakia where the tobacco is in contact with the mouth and gums. It is also common in regular drinkers. Sometimes, a poor fitting denture, a rough tooth, a rough crown, or other oral appliance can rub in a spot, causing leukoplakia to develop at the irritated spot. Hairy leukoplakia is an extremely rare form that is associated with weakened immune systems, especially in patients with HIV or AIDS.

Q: Is leukoplakia always cancerous?

A: No. In fact, leukoplakia is rarely cancerous or pre-cancerous. According to cancerresearchuk.org, only about 5% of people with leukoplakia have cancerous or precancerous changes in the leukoplakia. That said, it’s important to work with your dentist to make sure that your mouth isn’t part of the 5%. There is no substitute for proper medical care from a trained medical professional when you have unusual symptoms in your mouth.

Q: Is leukoplakia curable?

A: Yes. The first step is to determine any possible causes of irritation, and the next step is to eliminate the irritants. This may mean replacing poor fitting dentures or cemented retainers, repairing broken crowns or rough tooth surfaces, and should definitely include a plan to discontinue tobacco and or alcohol if they are contributing factors. Often, just removing the irritants will allow the mouth to heal. Sometimes, leukoplakia is too firmly entrenched to heal on its own, so your dentist will remove the affected areas with a scalpel, freezing treatment, or laser treatment. If you have patches removed this way, expect to follow up regularly to watch for other changes or recurrences that may be a sign of larger problems.

Hairy leukoplakia is usually treated by supporting the immune system. Your doctor may prescribe antiviral medication to help your body fight off infection with viruses that cause hairy leukoplakia, and you will probably be monitored closely to look out for future problems.

How to Treat White Spots on Gums

After you see the dentist or oral surgeon, they will probably take a biopsy if they see any worrying signs. The treatment for leukoplakia is to let the lesions heal. If they are caused by irritation, the dentist or oral surgeon will try to eliminate the source of the irritation. They may smooth and polish a rough surface or re-fit another irritant. If tobacco use is the suspected culprit, the doctor will likely encourage you to stop using tobacco.

In the case of lesions that don’t heal on their own, it is possible to have the patches removed. You may need to see an oral surgeon for that procedure.

The White Patch Moved. Now What?

While leukoplakia is not going to be removed with a simple scratch, what if your white spot does move about with simple scraping? If so, it may be oral thrush.

Oral thrush is a type of yeast infection called candidiasis. It is more common in people who suffer from dry mouth, which allows the yeast to overgrow, and young children and people with compromised immune systems. Unlike leukoplakia, oral thrush is generally uncomfortable, with burning or soreness. It can make eating uncomfortable if the lesions spread enough.

Your doctor or dentist can treat oral thrush with anti-fungal medication. They are readily able to diagnose it and help treat it. If dry mouth contributes to the development of thrush, consider treating the dry mouth to prevent recurrences.

Any changes in your mouth should be carefully watched and checked by your dentist. The good news is, most causes of white spots in the mouth are readily treatable. Having other white spots symptoms? Check out our similar resources for white spots on teeth.

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