Erythroplakia (pronounced eh-RITH-roh-PLAY-kee-uh) appears as abnormal red lesions on the mucous membranes in your mouth.

The lesions typically occur on your tongue or on the floor of your mouth. They can’t be scraped off.

Erythroplakia lesions are often found alongside leukoplakia lesions. Leukoplakia lesions look like similar patches but are white as opposed to red.

According to the American Academy of Oral Medicine, erythroplakia and leukoplakia are generally considered precancerous (or potentially cancerous) lesions.

Keep reading to learn more about erythroplakia, its causes, diagnosis, and treatment.

Your doctor will determine whether your erythroplakia is potentially cancerous by taking a sample, or biopsy.

A pathologist will examine the sample using a microscope. They’ll look for dysplasia. This is a characteristic of cells that indicate a higher risk level of the development of cancer.

At the time of diagnosis, erythroplakia has a high chance of showing signs of precancerous cells. Malignant transformation rates — meaning the chance of precancerous cells turning cancerous — range from 14 to 50 percent.

The majority of leukoplakia lesions may never lead to the formation of cancer. However, there’s a higher chance of erythroplakia developing into cancer in the future if it initially shows dysplasia.

Early diagnosis and follow-up is necessary for erythroplakia.

Since erythroplakia often develops without pain or other symptoms, it can go unnoticed until it’s found by your dentist or dental hygienist.

If your dentist suspects erythroplakia, they’ll closely examine the area, often using gauze, instruments, and palpation. They’ll ask you for a history of the lesion to rule out other causes, like trauma.

If the lesion bleeds easily, there’s a higher chance of erythroplakia, according to the American Cancer Society.

Picture of erythroplakia in the mouth

Smoking and using chewing tobacco are the most common causes of erythroplakia lesions.

Dentures that don’t fit quite right and constantly rub your gums or other tissues inside your mouth may also cause leukoplakia or erythroplakia.

Once erythroplakia is identified, your dentist or doctor will most likely recommend a biopsy. A pathologist will examine the tissue sample under a microscope to determine whether it has precancerous or cancerous cells.

The biopsy findings, along with the location and size of the lesion, will inform the treatment. Your doctor may recommend:

Your doctor will also suggest avoiding the use of tobacco products and reducing or eliminating alcohol use.

The World Health Organization suggests that before making a diagnosis of erythroplakia, healthcare providers should consider and rule out other similar conditions. These include:

Erythroplakia is an uncommon condition that appears as red lesions on the mucous membranes in your mouth. The lesions aren’t classified as any other condition.

Erythroplakia is usually identified by your dentist, because there are few, if any, symptoms beyond the abnormal patches.

If your dentist suspects erythroplakia, they’ll most likely recommend a biopsy to see whether there are precancerous or cancerous cells present.

Treatment may include a combination of lifestyle changes, such as avoiding tobacco products, and surgical removal.