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What is Erythroplakia?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Erythroplakia is a reddish patch of tissue in the mouth. It is often brighter than the surrounding oral mucosa, with clearly defined edges, and it will usually bleed freely. This type of oral lesion is considered precancerous and can be a cause for concern. When a doctor identifies erythroplakia, the recommendation is usually to take a biopsy sample to learn more about what is going on inside the mouth.

Sometimes, patients may notice the patches on their own while caring for their teeth. They can show up on or under the tongue and along the gums and may have a glossy or velvety surface. The growth can be tender and irritated. If it doesn't resolve independently within a week or so, this is a sign that permanent tissue changes are happening inside the mouth, and the lesion needs to be evaluated to determine the level of risk it presents to the patient. Especially if there is a family history of cancers involving the mouth or mucus membranes, tissue changes are a cause for concern.

In an erythroplakia biopsy, a doctor can take a scraping or may decide to go ahead and excise the entire growth. Taking the whole growth does provide some advantages, because if it turns out to be malignant, the doctor has already taken the first step in treatment by removing it. A pathologist will examine the sample in a lab and determine what kinds of cells are involved and whether they are cancerous or precancerous. If the erythroplakia is precancerous, monitoring is recommended to identify malignant growths in the mouth as early as possible.

Causes of erythroplakia can include alcohol and tobacco use, exposure to harsh chemicals, and heavy amounts of ultraviolet exposure. Sometimes, there is no clear cause in a patient and the lesion is the result of a spontaneous mutation. Mucus membranes usually have high cell turnover, as they are constantly renewing themselves, and this creates a number of opportunities for malignant cells to develop and gain a foothold.

A related medical issue is leukoplakia, where white patches form in the mouth. Sometimes, patients exhibit both conditions. In either case, medical evaluation of the lesion is strongly recommended, preferably as early as possible. If growths are malignant, they will be more responsive to treatment when they are caught early. Growths in the mouth can expose people to significant risks of metastasis and it is important to treat them appropriately.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon969470 — On Sep 10, 2014

What kind of doctor should you visit if you think you have this condition? I went to a dentist but he wasn't able to do anything about it.

By bear78 — On Jun 28, 2013

@alisha-- I think the percentage that you gave is not accurate. Technically, erythroplakia is a red lesion in the mouth that cannot be medically identified as anything else. So erythroplakia symptoms don't have to be a sign of cancer.

By discographer — On Jun 27, 2013
@ankara-- First of all, erythroplakia or leukoplakia are not a cause of cancer, but more like pre-cancerous symptoms.

The last I checked, close to half of people who have chronic erythroplakia end up with oral cancer. So no one can say for sure whether the erythroplakia in your mouth will develop into cancerous tumors or not. But I don't think it's a good idea to take that risk. I personally would follow my doctor's advice and have them removed. Believe me, having erythroplakia removed now is much better than getting tongue ulcer treatment later on.

There is not much difference between erythroplakia and leukoplakia aside from their appearance. I'm not a doctor but I don't think one is more prone to developing into cancer than the other.

By the way, do you smoke or chew tobacco? If you do, you have to quit immediately.

By bluedolphin — On Jun 27, 2013

Is the risk of cancer from erythroplakia greater than the risk of cancer from leukoplakia?

I have both types of lesions in my mouth. My doctor wants to remove all of them. I'm not sure if I want to have them removed because won't there be holes in my mouth afterward? If erythroplakia has a greater risk of cancer, then I might just have those removed. I don't want mouth or tongue cancer.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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