Is Erythroplakia a Red Flag for Oral Cancer?

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Not sure if that irritated patch on your tongue merits a trip to the dentist? Common oral lesions include leukoplakia (white patch), erythroplakia (red patch) or a combination of red and white lesions referred to as erythroleukoplakia. Many lesions are innocuous and can be identified and monitored without concern. However, any red lesion should set off a "red flag" for a precancerous condition and will require further investigation.

While it sounds like other benign issues that can develop in your mouth, erythroplakia may be the sign of something more dangerous. This condition of the mouth is defined by the Oral Cancer Foundation as a "red lesion that cannot be classified as another entity." Essentially, it's a red patch on the oral tissue which can't be associated with any other condition of the mouth, like a burn, abrasion or trauma. This condition is a less common oral lesion that has a higher chance of being precancerous. According to Jefferson University Hospitals, it's generally found on the floor of the mouth or tongue. So who is susceptible to this condition and how can it be treated?

Causes and Risk Factors

Erythroplakia can be caused by unhealthy habits (like tobacco use and poor diet), long-term trauma to oral tissues, or simply from aging. No one is exempt from developing this condition but it can be prevented or, at least in its earliest form, eradicated before it develops into oral cancer. Since the risk of cancer increases with age and in the presence of certain risk factors, most cases are identified in heavy drinkers and smokers over 40, according to the American Family Physician.

Detection and Treatment

Regular examinations of your mouth and teeth are the key for early detection. Your dentist or dental hygienist is qualified to perform a thorough soft tissue and head and neck exam to detect any problems in the mouth. Erythroplakia can develop without any pain or symptoms and usually doesn't develop over a large area. The most common high risk sites for this lesion are the lateral border or underside of the tongue, the floor of the mouth, and the back of the throat. Any suspicious areas should be examined closely with instruments, gauze, and palpation as these flat, velvety red lesions will often bleed when scraped or palpated, according to the American Cancer Society. The cheeks, lips, gums and the roof of the mouth will also be examined for abnormalities.

If a suspicious red lesion is identified, a biopsy is the next step. This can be done in your dentist's office or an oral surgeon's office using local anesthesia to remove tissue from the area. The tissue sample will be sent to a pathology lab for diagnosis, though the results may take several days. If the results indicate cancer, you will be referred to specialists for treatment that will include complete removal of the lesion as well as surrounding tissue. If the biopsy reveals dysplasia or a precancerous patch, removal or excision may still be recommended, or at the very least, close monitoring and frequent checks of the area will be necessary.

Oral health is paramount to overall health, and that should include regular dental visits and medical check-ups. If you develop sores in your mouth, a product like Colgate® Peroxyl® Mouth Sore Rinse can help soothe them. Your responsibility should be to live a healthy lifestyle in conjunction with preventive care. By caring for and examining your mouth, you can detect changes as soon as they occur. By not ignoring the "red flag," you will help reduce your chances of developing oral cancer.