Oral mucosa is a specialized type of tissue that lines the mouth. This tissue is designed to provide protection for the body from infection and debris, and it is capable of producing secretions such as mucus, in addition to absorbing materials introduced into the mouth. The trait of absorption is used to apply certain types of medications, such as oral vaccines.
Three different types of oral mucosa can be found in the mouth. Around the tongue, cheeks, and hard palate, the tissue is keratinized so that it can withstand the abrasiveness of chewing. Other areas have non-keratinized tissue, which is more fragile and requires moist secretions to stay healthy. The taste buds are made from a third type of highly specialized tissue. Similar types of mucus membranes can be found in other regions of the body, such as the eyes and genitals.
The color of the oral mucosa can vary, depending on the skin color of the body. In some people, it is a pale pink, while others have darker pink to brown tissue. Extremely pale mucosa can be a sign that someone is anemic, while patchy or dark ones can be signs of a medical problem. A classic problem that develops with the oral mucosa is leukoplakia, in which white plaques of material appear in the mouth.
Because the tissue inside the mouth is constantly abraded, it is composed of squamous cells, flattened cells that adhere in layers to a basement membrane. These cells can be easily scraped away without reaching this membrane, and they grow back quickly to repair minor cuts and abrasions. Like other types of tissue in the body, those in the mouth can become cancerous, with squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) being the most common form of cancer that appears in this location.
The only area of the mouth not covered by the oral mucosa is the teeth. In some people, the gums that normally protect the base of the teeth can recede, exposing the jaw and teeth roots to the risk of infection and other problems. Receding gums are associated with periodontal disease, a dental condition that can have a number of causes. It is important for individuals to get treatment for all infections and disease in the mouth, because the mucus lining is vulnerable to damage, and it can provide a conduit for infections to enter other areas of the body because of its absorbability.