All about Oral Cancer: Symptoms, Risk Factors, and Prevention

patient in dental chair

Thousands of Americans are diagnosed with oral cancers each year, yet surprisingly few people are familiar with the symptoms, risk factors, and prevention measures related to these types of cancers. When diagnosed early, however, the treatability and prognosis of oral cancers improves significantly. Since early detection is key, it’s essential to arm yourself with the facts about oral cancer and prevention measures you can take to help protect yourself from this potentially deadly disease.

What is oral cancer?

Like all other types of cancers, oral cancer is characterized by cells growing uncontrollably and subsequently damaging the surrounding tissues. Oral cancer is not limited strictly to the inside of the mouth. In addition to cancers of the tongue, palate, throat, and floor of the mouth, oral cancer also includes cancers of the sinuses, lips, and cheeks.

What are the symptoms of oral cancer?

There’s a wide variety of symptoms of oral cancer and each case is unique. Yet, some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Mouth sores. Cancerous mouth sores and growths are different from other common sores that occur in and around the mouth, like cold sores or canker sores. They are unique because they do not go away with time.
  • Patches. Growths and sores are not the only abnormalities you should check for in your mouth, however. Patches– which are often white or red in color– can also indicate oral cancer. Crusty, rough areas on the lips or gums should also be examined by your dentist or health care provider.
  • Bleeding. While it’s true that bleeding gums are often a sign of periodontal disease, unexplained bleeding in the mouth can also be a symptom of some types of oral cancers.
  • Numbness. A loss of feeling in the mouth, face, or neck areas can be indicative of a serious health concern, including oral cancer. Additionally, persistent pain or tenderness in these areas should be addressed with your dentist or doctor.
  • Sore throat. Everyone has a sore throat from time to time, but chronic sore throat warrants a check-up with a health care professional. Persistent hoarseness or a sudden change in the sound of your voice are potentially causes for concern too.
  • Difficulty swallowing. If you feel like swallowing food has suddenly become more difficult, it’s time to schedule an appointment with your dentist or doctor. Additionally, trouble talking or moving your tongue are red flags that need further investigation.

What are the risk factors for oral cancer?

Anyone can get oral cancer, but certain people are more at risk. The most common risk factors include:

  • Smoking. Smokers– including those who smoke cigarettes, pipes, and cigars– are drastically more likely to develop oral cancer than their smoke-free counterparts.
  • Tobacco products. Cigarettes aren’t the only product containing tobacco that pose an oral cancer risk. Those who use smokeless tobacco products– such as chewing tobacco or dip– also have a significantly elevated risk of developing oral cancers.
  • Alcohol consumption. People who drink alcohol in excess face an increased risk of oral cancer.
  • Genetics. A family history of cancer might also result in an increased likelihood of developing oral cancers.
  • Sun exposure. Excessive exposure to the sun– and particularly exposure that occurred at a young age– is considered a risk factor for oral cancers.

How can I prevent oral cancer?

Fortunately, there are certain prevention measures you can take to reduce your risk of developing oral cancers, including:

  • Stop smoking and using tobacco products.
  • Avoid heavy drinking of alcohol.
  • Be mindful of your diet.
  • Avoid excessive sun exposure and always wear sunscreen, including on your lips.
  • Examine your mouth and surrounding areas regularly and make note of any changes.
  • Visit your dentist for regular check-ups, typically twice a year.

If you would like additional information regarding oral cancers or any other oral health concerns, please contact us today.

Return to Blog