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Is Erythroplakia a Red Flag for Oral Cancer?

Published date field Last Updated:

Medically Reviewed By Colgate Global Scientific Communications

If you find an irritated patch on your tongue, it's tempting to ignore it and hope that it gets better on its own. But if you can't attribute this irritated patch to a specific cause like a burn, abrasion, or trauma, then your condition warrants a trip to the dentist to figure out if it's a sign of something dangerous. Any such oral lesions need to be investigated in case they're a red flag for a precancerous condition. Possible oral lesions include erythroplakia, leukoplakia, or erythroleukoplakia. It's natural to feel overwhelmed, but we're here to guide you through the process. Remember, by not ignoring the red flag, you will help reduce your chances of developing oral cancer.


According to the American Cancer Society, erythroplakia, leukoplakia, and erythroleukoplakia are terms that describe tissue changes in the mouth.

Erythroplakia. This is a red patch that can be both flat or slightly raised. When scraped, it bleeds easily.

Leukoplakia. This is a white or gray patch.

Erythroleukoplakia. A combination of leukoplakia and erythroplakia, it has both red and white areas.

Causes and Risk Factors

Erythroplakia can be caused by habits like tobacco use or heavy drinking, long-term trauma to oral tissues, or even from aging. While anyone can develop this condition, the risk of cancer increases with age. So, most cases are seen in people over 40 who also exhibit the risk factors discussed above.


Oral lesions like erythroplakia may initially be painless, but their red appearance warrants further evaluation. So regular examinations of your mouth are critical for early detection.

A dental professional can perform a thorough soft tissue and head and neck exam to detect possible lesions. Research from Jefferson University Hospitals has found that erythroplakia is generally seen on the tongue or the mouth floor. You can also find lesions in the back of the throat and just behind the last molars.

Any areas of suspicion will be examined closely with palpation, gauze, and light and mirrors.

Treatment for Erythroplakia

According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, "verifying the premalignant status of an oral lesion requires a biopsy." Your dental professional or oral surgeon will remove tissue from the area to be sent to a pathology lab for diagnosis. If the results indicate that you have cancer, you will be referred to a specialist for the complete removal of the lesion and the surrounding tissue. If the results suggest that the patch is precancerous, removal or excision may still be recommended.

Taking care of your oral health should include regular dental visits and medical check-ups and practicing good oral hygiene. By paying close attention to your mouth, you can identify possible red flags and reduce oral cancer chances.


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This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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