Lips, mouth, and tongue -

Keratinizing squamous dysplasia

This article was last reviewed and updated on December 2, 2019.
by Jason Wasserman, MD PhD FRCPC

Quick facts:

  • Keratinizing squamous dysplasia is a pre-cancerous disease that can involve the lips, mouth, and tongue.

  • It is considered a precancerous disease because it can lead to a type of cancer called squamous carcinoma.

  • Keratinizing squamous dysplasia is divided into three levels - mild, moderate, and severe - and the risk of developing cancer is highest with severe dysplasia.


The oral cavity

The lips, mouth, and tongue form an area of the body called the oral cavity. The mouth also includes the gums (gingiva), inner cheeks (buccal mucosa), and palate (the roof of the mouth).

The surface of the oral cavity is lined by cells called squamous cells. that form a barrier called the epithelium. The tissue below the epithelium is called stroma. Pathologists use the word mucosa to describe tissue that includes both the epithelium and the stroma.


Some toxins such as cigarette smoke can cause the squamous cells in the epithelium to change in both look and behavior. Over time these changes lead to an abnormal pattern of growth called dysplasia. The abnormal growth often causes the cells to undergo a process called keratinization. Together, these changes are called keratinizing squamous dysplasia.

What is keratinizing squamous dysplasia?

Keratinizing squamous dysplasia in the oral cavity is a pre-cancerous disease.  It is called pre-cancerous because, over time, it has the potential to turn into cancer called squamous cell carcinoma.

The risk associated with squamous dysplasia turning into cancer depends on how abnormal the squamous cells look under the microscope. The risk of cancer is highest when your pathologist describes the changes as severe (see Grade below). 

When examined under a microscope, the abnormal cells in squamous dysplasia are only found in the epithelium on the surface of the oral cavity. In order to become squamous cell carcinoma, the cancer cells have to spread from the epithelium into the stroma below. The movement of cancer cells from the epithelium into the stroma below is called invasion.

A diagnosis of squamous dysplasia means that after careful examination under the microscope, abnormal squamous cells were only found in the epithelium.


The diagnosis of dysplasia is usually made after a small sample of tissue is removed in a procedure called a biopsy. The biopsy is usually performed because you or your doctor saw an abnormal looking area of tissue within your oral cavity.


Depending on the grade of the disease (see Grade below), your doctor may recommend surgery to remove all of the abnormal tissue or close clinical follow-up.   

Grade - mild, moderate, or severe

Grade is a word pathologists use to describe how different the abnormal cells in an area of dysplasia look compared to the normal squamous cells that are usually found in that location.


Pathologists use the size, colour, and shape of the cell to determine the grade. Using these features, dysplasia in the oral cavity is usually divided into three levels:


  • Mild dysplasia - The abnormal squamous look very similar to normal squamous cells.

  • Moderate dysplasia - The abnormal squamous cells are darker and larger than normal squamous cells and the normal organization of the epithelium may be disrupted.

  • Severe dysplasia - The abnormal squamous cells look similar to cancer cells but they are still only seen in the epithelium. There is no evidence of invasion.


Pathologists often group moderate and severe dysplasia together and call them both high grade dysplasia. Mild dysplasia is called low grade dysplasia.


Why is this important? The grade is very important because it is related to the risk of developing an invasive cancer in the future. Mild (low grade) dysplasia has a very low risk of turning into cancer and is often left untreated. Moderate and severe (high grade) dysplasia is associated with a much higher risk of becoming cancer and patients with this condition are usually offered treatment to remove the diseased tissue.


A margin is any tissue that was cut by the surgeon in order to remove the abnormal tissue from your body. Whenever possible, surgeons will try to cut tissue outside of the abnormal area to reduce the risk that any abnormal cells will be left behind after the tissue is removed. 

Your pathologist will carefully examine all the margins in your tissue sample to see how close the abnormal cells are to the edge of the cut tissue.

A margin is called positive when there are abnormal cells at the very edge of the cut tissue.

A negative margin means there were no abnormal cells at the very edge of the cut tissue. If all the margins are negative, most pathology reports will say how far the closest abnormal cells were to a margin. The distance is usually described in millimeters.

Margins will only be described in your report after the entire area of abnormal tissue has been removed.

Why is this important? A positive margin is associated with a higher risk that the disease will come back in the same site after treatment. Most pathologists only consider moderate or severe dysplasia (high grade dysplasia) at the cut edge of the tissue to be a positive margin.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter

Copyright 2017

For more information about this site, contact us at

Disclaimer: The articles on MyPathologyReport are intended for general informational purposes only and they do not address individual circumstances. The articles on this site are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the MyPathologyReport site. The articles on are intended for use within Canada by residents of Canada only.

Droits d'auteur 2017
Pour plus d'informations sur ce site, contactez-nous à
Clause de non-responsabilité: Les articles sur MyPathologyReport ne sont destinés qu’à des fins d'information et ne tiennent pas compte des circonstances individuelles. Les articles sur ce site ne remplacent pas les avis médicaux professionnels, diagnostics ou traitements et ne doivent pas être pris en compte pour la prise de décisions concernant votre santé. Ne négligez jamais les conseils d'un professionnel de la santé à cause de quelque chose que vous avez lu sur le site de MyPathologyReport. Les articles sur sont destinés à être utilisés au Canada, par les résidents du Canada uniquement.