What Oral (Mouth) Cancer Looks Like

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Young Caucasian man looking at mouth in mirror
  • Oral cancer can be painless. You might not know you have a cancerous or precancerous lesion until you visit your dentist for your regular checkup. Or you may have thought that odd-looking patch or spot in your mouth wasn’t anything to worry about, since it didn’t hurt. Even if it did hurt, you figured it was just a canker sore. Here are some oral (mouth) cancer pictures so you can know the warning signs you need to heed. After all, as with any cancer, the earlier you can treat oral or mouth cancer, the better your chances of a full recovery.

  • 1
    Lip Cancer
    Lip cancer

    Lip cancer lesions can develop anywhere on your lips, but they are most likely to occur on your lower lip. Getting too much sun is a risk factor for oral cancer, especially lip cancer. Making sure you have sun-protectant lip balm or lipstick is one way to cut your risk. Tobacco use, whether smoking or chewing, can also lead to cancer of the lips (as well as other mouth cancers). If you develop a spot that lasts longer than two weeks, have your dentist check it out.

    Photo credit: Klaus D. Peter under  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 German y)

  • 2
    White Patches
    Leukoplakia in inner cheek

    White spots inside your mouth that don't rub off when wiped with gauze are called leukoplakia. These painless lesions may appear on the insides of your cheeks or the side or bottom of your tongue. Sometimes they are caused by irritation in your mouth, such as to a rough tooth; some will go away on their own. Most leukoplakia are benign, but about 25% may be cancerous or precancerous. For this reason, your dentist may want you to have your leukoplakia biopsied.

    (Photo credit: 
    Michael Gaither under Creative Commons Attibution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported)

  • 3
    Red Patches
    Red and white patches on inside of mouth

    Red spots inside your mouth that don't have an obvious cause (such as an injury) are erythroplakia. These lesions can be flat or slightly raised. If you scrape a red spot like this, it may bleed. Erythroplakia is less common than leukoplakia, but more likely to be cancerous. When tested, about 70% of erythroplakia lesions are either cancerous or precancerous. Patches of mixed red and white spots, called erythroleukoplakia, also are more highly linked to cancer. If you have a red spot or sore in your mouth, bring it to your dentist's attention.

  • 4
    Oral Lichen Planus
    Microscope image of lichen planus

    Lichen planus is a chronic inflammation caused by an autoimmune disorder. You may see a white patch in your mouth that's got a lacy pattern. Or, oral lichen planus may appear as a swollen, red area or as an open sore. It's most often found inside the cheeks, but lesions can also appear on your gums, tongue, inside your lips, or on the roof of your mouth. Lichen planus lesions can sometimes become cancerous, so you need to be monitored by your dentist. Lichen planus can't be cured but you can get medication to help ease pain and encourage open sores to heal.

    Photo credit: Nephron under  Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported )

  • 5
    Salivary Gland Tumors
    Man with large salivary gland tumor under ear

    Sometimes oral cancers develop in the small salivary glands that exist in the lining of your mouth and throat. You may notice a growing lump or swelling in your upper lip, the roof of your mouth, inside your cheek, or in another spot in your mouth. Keep in mind that not all salivary gland tumors are cancerous. Also, lumps can be a sign of infection or blocked salivary ducts, rather than cancer. Your dentist or doctor will need to examine you to determine the best course of treatment.

  • 6
    Roof of Mouth Cancer
    Roof of mouth cancer

    Having an ulcer on the roof of your mouth (also called your hard palate) is a sign of mouth cancer. The ulcer may bleed as the cancer grows. Usually it's spotted first by your dentist, so keeping regular dental exams can help with early detection. Using tobacco or regularly drinking alcohol to excess can make it more likely to get this type of cancer. Other symptoms to watch for include bad breath, loose teeth, dentures that stop fitting, speech changes, problems with swallowing or moving your jaw, and a lump in your neck.

  • 7
    Oral Tongue Cancer
    Image of tongue cancer tumor

    The first two-thirds of your tongue—the part you can stick out—is called your oral tongue. Symptoms of mouth cancer on your tongue include a pinkish-gray or red lesion that bleeds easily if you touch or bite it. Risk factors for tongue cancer include being male, over 40, and a smoker. Smokers are five times more likely than nonsmokers to develop oral tongue cancer. Another type of tongue cancer develops in the base of the tongue; this is called hypopharyngeal tongue cancer, and is often associated with the human papillomavirus (HPV).

    Photo credit: PLOS.org under  Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International )

  • 8
    Gum Cancer
    Gum cancer and tooth damage

    Mouth cancer on your gums can sometimes be mistaken for gingivitis, a common gum inflammation. Some of the signs are similar, including bleeding gums. However, gum cancer symptoms also include white, red or dark patches on the gums, cracking gums, and thick areas on the gums. Gum cancer is often successfully treated if it is caught early. Top risk factors for gum cancer include using chewing tobacco, smoking, and excessive alcohol consumption.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Feb 6
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