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Erythroplakia: What This Red Spot May Mean

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Medically Reviewed By Colgate Global Scientific Communications

While most of us don't regularly inspect the inside of our mouth besides casually peering in when we're brushing our teeth, we know that a healthy mouth ranges from pink to brown in color. So if you notice an unfamiliar red patch in your mouth, it's time to visit your dental professional. It's essential to get a diagnosis for this abnormally discolored patch, as it could be a condition called erythroplakia.

While you wait to see your dental professional, you've probably got some questions, like what is erythroplakia and how could it affect my oral health? To feel more confident in your understanding of this condition, let's go over what it is, its potential risk factors, and treatment options.

Spotting an Oral Lesion

Erythroplakia is a lesion — an area of tissue that has suffered injury or disease — in the mouth. It is smooth and red in color. This lesion may be asymptomatic, meaning it might not cause pain, and you may only notice it upon peering into your mouth.

Typically, you'll find erythroplakia inside the cheek, on or under the tongue, or on the soft palate. The lesion will appear different than the healthy tissue that surrounds it. The Oral Cancer Foundation reports that leukoplakia, a white lesion of the mouth, is much more common than erythroplakia. The term "erythroleukoplakia" describes a leukoplakia with a red component.

Potential Risk Factors

Unfortunately, we don't know why this type of lesion originates in the mouth. But, several risk factors may increase your chances of developing erythroplakia, including a diagnosis of HPV and lifestyle habits like smoking and chewing tobacco and excessive alcohol consumption. In general, older men are more likely to develop this lesion, according to the WHO.

Is It Oral Cancer?

It's crucial to keep in mind that erythroplakia is not cancer. However, it is precancerous, meaning the red lesion cells have a risk of becoming cancer cells. The Canadian Cancer Society notes that approximately 50 percent of these red lesions turn into oral cancer called squamous cell carcinoma.

The only way to definitively diagnose a lesion in your mouth is to visit your dental or medical professional. It could be a different type of lesion, such as candidiasis, or stomatitis, for example. Your dental professional may take a biopsy to help guide diagnosis and treatment. They may also apply a dye called toluidine blue to help identify abnormal cells and guide the biopsy location.

Treatment Options

Armed with a diagnosis, you and your dental professional can decide on the appropriate treatment. Many lesions can be surgically removed and monitored to ensure they don't come back. If your dentist determines that surgery is necessary, they may recommend one of three routes, explains the Canadian Cancer Society: traditional surgery, laser surgery, or cryosurgery.

While traditional surgery is often performed with a scalpel, a medical professional can perform laser surgery with a heated laser that makes bloodless cuts. The other alternative, cryosurgery, applies intense cold to freeze and remove the affected area. Your dentist will help you decide which type of surgery is best for you.

No matter how you approach treatment, it's essential to eliminate high-risk behaviors like smoking, which may increase your chances of developing oral cancer. Erythroplakia can be a puzzling diagnosis. If you find a red spot, we recommend making an appointment with your dentist out of an abundance of caution. Most importantly, stay on top of your routine dental visits so your dentist and dental hygienist can perform consistent oral cancer screenings, which will contribute to not only your oral health but your overall health too!

Oral Care Center articles are reviewed by an oral health medical professional. This information is for educational purposes only. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist, physician or other qualified healthcare provider. 

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