What Does Mouth Cancer Look Like?
Something Not Right in Your Mouth?
Oral cancer can affect any of the working parts of your mouth or oral cavity, which includes:
- your lips
- the tissue that lines your lips and cheeks
- your teeth
- two-thirds of your tongue (the back third of your tongue, or base, is considered part of your oropharynx, or throat)
- your gums
- the area of your mouth underneath the tongue, called the floor
- the roof of your mouth
When should you worry about a bump, sore, or swelling in your mouth? Here’s what to look for.
Painful, but Not Dangerous
Know how to distinguish a canker sore from something more serious. A canker sore inside your mouth often burns, stings, or tingles before it’s visible. Unlike flat patches that indicate abnormal cell growth, a canker sore looks like an ulcer, usually with a depression in the center. The middle of the canker sore may appear white, gray, or yellow, and the edges are red.
While these sores are painful, they’re not malignant. That is, they don’t become cancerous. Canker sores usually heal within two weeks, so any sore, lump, or spot in your mouth that lasts longer needs a professional evaluation.
A Patch of Trouble
The flat cells that cover the surfaces of your mouth, tongue, and lips are called squamous cells. The majority of mouth cancers begin in these cells. A patch on your tongue, gums, tonsil, or on the lining of your mouth can signal trouble. This potential sign of squamous cell carcinoma inside your mouth or on your lips may be white or red. The next slides explain more about these patches.
White Patches More Common
A white or grayish patch inside your mouth or on your lips is called leukoplakia (keratosis). An irritant like a rough tooth, broken denture, or tobacco can produce these patches. The habit of chewing the inside of your cheek or lips can also cause cell overgrowth that leads to leukoplakia.
This tissue is abnormal and can become malignant, but in most cases is benign. The patches may be rough and hard, and can’t be scraped off easily. Leukoplakia generally develops slowly, over a period of weeks or months.
Mixed Red and White Patches
A mixture of red and white patches in your mouth, called erythroleukoplakia, is an abnormal cell growth that’s more likely to become cancerous. If red and white patches last more than two weeks, the American Dental Association recommends having them checked out. You may see these mouth abnormalities before you feel them. In the early stages, mouth cancer may cause no pain.
Bright red, velvety patches in your mouth, called erythroplakia, are often precancerous. In 75 to 90 percent of cases, erythroplakia are cancerous, so don’t ignore any vividly colored spots in your mouth. If you have erythroplakia, your dentist will take a biopsy of these cells.
Hold Your Tongue
You may find erythroplakia anywhere in your mouth, but it occurs most often in the floor of the mouth underneath the tongue, or on your gums behind your back teeth. Using a magnifying mirror and under bright light, check your mouth carefully once a month for any signs of abnormality. Pull your tongue out gently with (clean) fingers and inspect underneath. Look at the sides of your tongue, the inside of your cheeks, and examine your lips inside and out.
Make Friends with Your Dentist
Your dentist does more than check for cavities and polish your teeth. A regular dental checkup twice a year is an important cancer screening too. These visits give your dentist the chance to detect any signs of oral cancer in the earliest stages. If there are any precancerous cells in your mouth, prompt treatment reduces the likelihood that they will become malignant.