Oral dysplasia

An oral dysplasia is a collection of abnormal cells found in the mouth lining, which usually presents as red, white or mixed patches of skin. 

Reviewed by Mr Alastair Fry, Consultant Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon

At a glance

What is an oral dysplasia?

A dysplasia is a collection of abnormal cells found within an organ or bodily tissue. A dysplasia is not cancer but may develop into cancer if left untreated. It is occasionally referred to as 'pre-cancer'.

An oral dysplasia is a collection of abnormal cells found in the tissues of the mouth, which usually present as red or white patches. Around 50% of mouth cancers arise from potentially malignant lesions, such as dysplasia. 

An oral dysplasia (or lesion) usually presents a patch of red, white, or mixed red and white skin on the lining inside your mouth.

They can occur on any part of the mouth lining, but are most commonly found on the cheek lining, tongue, or floor of the mouth. The lesions may be accompanied by pain or itching. 

Many patients don’t realise that they have lesions unless they are picked up at dental appointments. 

Some symptoms may indicate that an oral dysplasia has progressed to mouth cancer. These are:

  • Firmness or thickening of the lesion (induration)
  • Bleeding
  • Ulceration
  • Swelling.

At your appointment, your consultant will go through your current symptoms and medical history, before carrying out a physical examination of your mouth.

An oral dysplasia is formally diagnosed using a biopsy to examine the abnormal cells. The biopsy will take a small sample of tissue to be sent to a laboratory, for examination by a pathologist. 

Your dysplasia will be graded based on its severity. There are three grading categories: mild, moderate, and severe.

  • Mild dysplasia has a less than 5% risk of developing into cancer
  • Moderate dysplasia has a 3% – 15% risk of developing into cancer
  • Severe dysplasia has a greater than 16% risk of developing into cancer.

Anyone can develop an oral dysplasia, but you may be more at risk if:

  • You are a heavy smoker
  • You drink a lot of alcohol
  • You chew tobacco or betel nut.

Oral dysplasia treatment

If your dysplasia is graded as moderate or severe, you will usually be recommended to remove it. For mild dysplasia, treatment is not always necessary and depends on your preference.

We provide the following treatments for oral dysplasias:

  • Laser excision - Laser excision involves removing the whole of the lesion using a laser. The benefit of a whole excision means that the pathologist has the tissue fully intact to examine. 
  • Laser ablation - Laser ablation is used for mild dysplasias and involves destroying the edges of the dysplasia.
  • Monitoring of the dysplasia - In cases of mild dysplasia, treatment may not be necessary. Instead, you may choose to be examined more regularly and make lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking or drinking less alcohol. 

Private mouth cancer consultants in London

Head and neck services at Cromwell Hospital are led by Mr Alastair Fry, Consultant Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon. Mr Fry is a leading UK expert on the management and treatment of oral pre-cancers.

Paying for your treatment

We welcome both self-paying and insured patients.

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Please note - regrettably we are unable to answer specific medical questions or offer medical advice via email or telephone.