If you find new bumps, lesions, or spots in your mouth, it’s time to see an oral pathologist near you. But what exactly is oral pathology? And what types of conditions can an oral pathologist treat? Read our guide to learn the essentials of oral and maxillofacial pathology! 

What is Oral Pathology?

Oral pathology is a type of dentistry that specifically deals with the diagnosis and management of diseases of the mouth and jaws. Oral pathologists are specially trained to recognize various oral diseases, including oral cancers, infectious diseases, autoimmune disorders, and other conditions that can affect your oral health. They work closely with other dental and medical specialists–like the periodontists at Utah Periodontal–to provide comprehensive care for patients with complex oral health issues. 

Risk factors for oral and maxillofacial diseases include:

  • Tobacco use
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Family history
  • Advanced age
  • Chronic illnesses, like HIV/AIDS, diabetes, or autoimmune conditions
  • Medications, such as antihypertensive drugs, antipsychotics, and antidepressants
  • Poorly fitting dentures

Oral Pathologist in Salt Lake

If you have concerns about your mouth or jaw, you need an expert oral pathologist in Salt Lake. At Utah Periodontal, we work with oral and maxillofacial pathology to diagnose you quickly and get you the care you need–whether that’s medication, surgery, or an extensive treatment plan. 

You may need oral and maxillofacial pathology services if you notice the following:

  • Sores 
  • Red or white patches
  • Lumps or rough spots
  • Pain, tenderness, or numbness
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • Difficulty using your jaw
  • Change in the color of your mouth
  • Black growths on your tongue
  • Sore throat
  • Bad breath
  • Cysts
  • Lesions

Oral Pathology Diseases

Oral and maxillofacial pathology can diagnose and treat a number of diseases, from oral cancers to infectious diseases of the mouth and jaw area. Here are some common conditions that are diagnosed and managed through oral and maxillofacial pathology:

Oral Cancer

Oral cancer refers to any malignant tissue growth occurring in your mouth, including the lips, gums, tongue, inner lining of the cheeks, and floor or roof of the mouth (palate). It can also affect the salivary glands and the throat. Oral cancer often starts small as a tiny white or red dot and can go unnoticed until it’s more advanced. Symptoms include red or white patches, lumps, thickening of tissues in your mouth, difficulty chewing, persistent sore throat, numbness, and unexplained pain or bleeding. 

The biggest risk factor for oral cancer is tobacco use and heavy alcohol consumption. However, HPV, chronic sun exposure, advanced age, and a weakened immune system can also contribute. While oral cancer is serious, the prognosis is excellent when caught in the early stages. That’s why it’s so important to have regular dental exams. Your dentist can catch signs of oral cancer that you haven’t noticed yet.

If your dentist is concerned about a bump or lesion in your mouth, they’ll refer you to oral pathology for diagnostic testing. The oral pathologist in Salt Lake will perform a cancer screening. From there, you may need a biopsy and imaging studies to confirm the presence of cancer. 


Leukoplakia is a precancerous lesion seen on the mucous membranes of the mouth. While it can become malignant, most are not. Leukoplakia appears as thick, white patches in the mouth that can’t be scraped off and were not caused by infection or trauma. You often see these lesions on the tongue, inside the cheeks, gums, or floor of the mouth. The cause of leukoplakia isn’t fully understood, but it’s often associated with chronic inflammation, tobacco use, alcohol consumption, poor diet, and poor hygiene.  

Oral and maxillofacial pathology will diagnose leukoplakia based on clinical examination as well as a possible biopsy. Once diagnosed, the oral pathologist will work with you to identify and eliminate possible causes of the leukoplakia. You’ll also need regular follow-up examinations to make sure the lesion hasn’t turned cancerous. Some lesions may resolve on their own once the cause is identified. If it doesn’t go away and isn’t cancerous, there are several treatment options, including surgery, laser therapy, or cryotherapy.


Like leukoplakia, erythroplakia is a precancerous lesion of the mouth. Erythroplakia appears as red, velvety lesions or patches on the floor of the mouth, tongue, soft palate, uvula, or tonsillar pillars. The most common risk factors for erythroplakia include tobacco use and poorly fitting dentures that irritate the mouth. 

Erythroplakia is less common than leukoplakia and more likely to turn into oral cancer. Because of this, erythroplakia needs to be completely removed and regular follow-ups are essential. 

Salivary Gland Tumors

The salivary glands are a group of exocrine glands in and around your mouth that produce saliva. Salivary gland tumors can be either benign or malignant, so it’s important to have them examined by an oral pathologist near you. 

Salivary gland tumors present as painless or painful masses in the affected gland. Other symptoms can include facial asymmetry, difficulty swallowing, difficulty opening the mouth, facial weakness or paralysis, and in some cases, visible swelling of the gland. Salivary gland tumors are diagnosed through examination, imagining, and biopsy. Treatment involves surgery to remove the tumor, and if cancerous, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or targeted therapy. 

Salivary gland tumors are rare. When cancerous tumors are found early, the prognosis is very good, so it’s important to get any concerning lumps in your salivary glands checked out as soon as you notice them. 


Thrush, which is also called oral candidiasis, is a fungal infection of the mouth caused by the Candida species of yeast. It presents as creamy white, raised lesions on the tongue, inner cheeks, roof of the mouth, gums, and/or tonsils. Thrush can be painful and cause bleeding, cracking of the mouth, and loss of taste. 

Thrush can be treated with antifungal medicines, such as topical or systemic antifungal agents. It’s more common in babies and older adults, or those with weakened immune systems. Oral and maxillofacial pathology can identify the correct type of yeast so that the infection can be promptly taken care of.  

Canker Sores

Canker sores, or aphthous ulcers, are painful, shallow ulcers that develop on the mucous membranes in your mouth. They are not contagious and typically appear as round or oval-shaped white or yellowish ulcers with red borders. While most aphthous ulcers are less than half an inch, some can become larger and may need treatment. 

The exact cause of canker sores is unclear, but factors like injuries to the mouth, stress, hormonal changes, spicy or acidic foods, and nutritional deficiencies may contribute to their development. Some medications, such as chemotherapy, antibiotics, and immunosuppressants can cause canker sores, which may put you at risk of an infection. In most cases, canker sores heal on their own within one to two weeks. Oral pathology can diagnose canker sores as well as help manage pain through OTC topical medications or corticosteroids. 

Cold Sores

Cold sores are another type of lesion seen in oral and maxillofacial pathology. Unlike canker sores, leukoplakia, or erythroplakia, which are not contagious, cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and are highly contagious. Cold sores are usually found on or around the lips, but can also affect the gums and mouth. 

After the first herpes infection, the virus remains dormant in your body and can be triggered by stress, sunlight, hormonal changes, fever, or a weakened immune system. There is no cure for cold sores, but antiviral medications can reduce the duration and severity of outbreaks. OTC creams and ointments with docosanol or benzyl alcohol can provide relief. 

An oral pathologist can diagnose you with cold sores as well as help you manage the disease, especially if you have persistent or frequent flare-ups. 

Dry Mouth (Xerostomia)

Saliva is essential for keeping your mouth healthy. It moistens the mouth and tongue to help with eating, protects the lining of the mouth, inhibits the growth of bacteria, among many other functions. Some medications, like antihistamines, decongestants, antidepressants, antipsychotics, muscle relaxants, and certain blood pressure medications, can cause dry mouth as a side effect. Without the production of saliva, you’re more at risk of cavities, gum disease, and oral infections. Plus, dry mouth makes it more difficult to eat, swallow, and talk. 

Oral pathology can help determine the cause of your dry mouth to alleviate its symptoms. The pathologist may prescribe medicine to stimulate saliva production or to moisten your mouth. Additionally, your medication may be adjusted to lessen the symptoms. 

Gingival Hyperplasia

Gingival hyperplasia is the overgrowth of gum tissue. It can be caused by anti-seizure medications, calcium channel blockers, and immunosuppressants. It’s usually found on the front of your teeth, but can also appear on your gums. 

If you’re experiencing gingival hyperplasia, it may be more difficult to maintain good oral hygiene. You may also be more susceptible to gum disease. It’s important to get an oral pathology assessment, including a possible biopsy, to rule out other malignant conditions of the mouth. Stopping the medication that’s causing the overgrowth can lessen the symptoms, but when that isn’t possible, you may need oral surgery to remove some of the overgrowth. 

Osteonecrosis of the Jaw (ONJ)

Osteonecrosis of the jaw, or ONJ, is a serious condition where blood supply to the jaw is compromised, leading to tissue death and breakdown of the area. While the exact cause is not fully understood, ONJ is commonly associated with the use of bisphosphonate medications, which are commonly used to treat certain bone-related conditions. ONJ has also been linked to certain immunosuppressive drugs used to treat cancer and autoimmune disease. Symptoms include pain, swelling, or numbness in the jaw or mouth, loose teeth, exposed bone, and delayed healing after dental procedures.

An oral and maxillofacial pathologist will diagnose ONJ through examination, medical history, and imagine studies. Treatment usually includes antibiotics, pain management, oral rinses, modification of medications, and surgical procedures to remove the dead bone tissue or repair soft tissue defects.