Warning Signs of Oral Cancer

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Sore throat exam

Brushing and flossing aren't the only good habits you need for a healthy mouth. Another is checking inside your mouth for changes that could be early warning signs of cancer. To do this, you need to know about the signs and symptoms of oral cancer. Signs are changes you can see, while symptoms are changes you can feel. Symptoms can also be warnings, so let your dentist or your doctor know about them.

Most signs or symptoms you notice probably aren't cancer. Common problems like cold sores or mouth ulcers don't develop into oral cancer. But you should let your dentist or doctor know about any sign or symptom that lasts more than two weeks. During a routine dental exam, your dentist also looks for signs of oral cancer. Like most cancers, early diagnosis of oral cancer means better treatment.

What is oral cancer?

Oral cancer is typically cancer that starts in your mouth or the back of your throat. Areas where mouth cancers can develop include:

  • Gums

  • Floor of your mouth, under the tongue

  • Front of the tongue, the movable part

  • Inside linings of the cheeks

  • Lips and inside of lips

  • Roof of your mouth, or hard palate

Areas where throat—or oropharyngeal—cancers can develop include:

  • Back and base of the tongue

  • Back wall of the throat

  • Soft palate, the soft back part of the roof of the mouth

  • Tonsils

What are the signs and symptoms of oral cancer?

Look for signs of oral cancer when you brush or floss. Let your dentist or doctor know about any of these changes:

  • A lump or thickening inside your mouth, below your jaw, or on your neck

  • A red or white patch in your mouth or throat

  • A sore or ulcer that won't heal, which is the most common sign

Tell your dentist or doctor if you have any of these oral cancer symptoms:

  • Ear pain

  • Feeling like something is stuck in your throat

  • Feeling like your bite is off or your dentures don’t fit

  • Persistent pain or numbness in your mouth or throat

  • Trouble swallowing or chewing

Other warning signs and symptoms are a change in your voice, bad breath, a bad taste in your mouth, and unintended weight loss.

How is oral cancer diagnosed?

If your doctor or dentist suspects oral cancer, you might need to see a specialist for a more complete exam and testing. The only way to know for sure if you have oral cancer is to have a biopsy. During this procedure, your doctor will take a sample of tissue for examination in a lab.

Are you at risk for oral cancer?

Oral cancer is more common if you:

  • Are male

  • Are older than 50

  • Drink alcohol

  • Eat few fruits and vegetables

  • Get frequent sun exposure, which is a risk for lip cancer

  • Smoke or chew tobacco. Combining alcohol and tobacco use makes your risk higher than either drinking or using tobacco alone.

HPV (human papilloma virus) infection is also a risk factor for oral cancer. HPV is a very common sexually transmitted disease, but there are many types of HPV. Some strains reach the mouth through kissing or oral sex and increase your risk for throat cancer over time. HPV-related cancer may occur at an earlier age than other forms of oral cancer. It can occur regardless of whether you drink or use tobacco.

The HPV vaccine protects against many types of the virus thought to cause oral cancer. That's why the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends all children receive the HPV vaccine when they're 11 to 12 years old, before they become sexually active. People can still be vaccinated into their 20s.

You can also greatly reduce your risk of oral cancer by quitting smoking and limiting alcohol use. If you need help with either of these areas, talk with your doctor and find a program that works for you.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Feb 19

  1. HPV and Oropharyngeal Cancer Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpvandoropharyngealcancer.htm

  2. Oral and oropharyngeal Cancer. American Dental Association. http://www.ada.org/en/member-center/oral-health-topics/oral-cancer

  3. Oral Cancer. American Dental Association. http://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/o/oral-cancer

  4. Oral Cancer. National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. https://www.nidcr.nih.gov/oralhealth/Topics/OralCancer/OralCancer.htm

  5. Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/oralcavityandoropharyngealcancer/detailedguide/oral-cavity-and-orophary...

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