Oral cancer is a term for cancers of the mouth and back of the throat. Oral cancer rates have increased since the 1970s, though they still make up only a small amount of all cancer diagnoses in the United States.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), oral cancers make up an estimated 3% of all cancer diagnoses each year in the United States.

The most common type of oral cancer is squamous cell carcinoma. This type of cancer affects the thin, flat cells that make up your skin on the inside of your mouth, such as on your gums or tongue. Researchers find that this type of cancer makes up about 90% of all oral cancer cases.

Anyone can get oral cancer, but it’s twice as prevalent in people assigned male at birth who are over the age of 40.

Keep reading to learn more about the prevalence of oral cancer across age, race, gender, and geography.

Fast facts about oral cancer

According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research:

  • Approximately 10 of every 100,000 adults will develop oral cancer.
  • The risk of developing oral cancer is higher for males than for females.
  • Hispanic and Black males are more likely to develop oral cancer than white males.
  • The risk of developing oral cancer increases as you get older.
  • Most people develop oral cancer between the ages of 60 and 70.
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The incidence of oral cancer varies globally between age, gender, and race. The Global Cancer Observatory reported 476,125 new cases of oral cancer in 2020 worldwide, with more than half of these incidences occurring in Asia.

A study from 2022 notes that the region with the most cases of oral cancer globally is South Asia.

The table below displays incidences of oral cancer, both mouth (oral cavity) and throat (oropharyngeal), across the world in 2020 according to the Global Cancer Observatory.

Geographic regionIncidences
North America41,495
Latin America and the Caribbean26,772

Language matters

You’ll notice that the language used to share stats and other data points in this article is pretty binary, fluctuating between the use of “male” and “female” or “men” and “women.” Although we typically avoid language like this, specificity is key when reporting on research participants and findings.

Unfortunately, the studies and surveys referenced in this article didn’t include data on, or include, participants who were transgender, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, agender, or genderless.

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Worldwide, males develop oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer more often than females.

Researchers think this may be due to differences in the use of tobacco or alcohol and sun exposure between the sexes.

In the United States, the lifetime risk of oral cancer in males is about 1 in 60 compared with 1 in 141 for females.

GenderWorldwide incidences in 2020

While oral cancer can develop at any time, it’s more common in adults as they increase in age. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), the average age of people who receive an oral cancer diagnosis is 64.

Oral cancer can occur in younger people. Approximately 1 in 5 people with oral cancer are under 55 years of age.

A 2019 study notes Black populations have a higher rate of oral cancer than white populations. The study also found a higher mortality rate for Black people with oral cancer compared with their white counterparts. The researchers attributed this disparity to the cancer being diagnosed at later stages combined with inequities in healthcare.

The table below shows incidence rates by race and age.

RaceAges 20–29 (%)Ages 40–49 (%) Ages 50–59 (%)Ages 60–69 (%)Ages 70–79 (%)Ages 80+ (%)
Black 0.910.225.935.837.027.6
Native American2.16.617.528.922.616.6

The success of treatment depends on the stage of cancer at the point of diagnosis. The earlier a diagnosis of cancer is made, the more effective treatment is likely to be.

Your age and general health condition when the cancer is diagnosed may also influence how you respond to treatments.

The table below lists 5-year survival rates according to age and the stage of cancer at diagnosis.

Stage at diagnosisAges 15–39 (%)Ages 40–64 (%)Ages 65–74 (%)Ages 75+ (%)
Stage 275.573.76648.8
Stage 36144.836.522.5

If you use tobacco, you’re more likely to develop oral cancer. Smoking cigarettes, cigars, vapes, and chewing tobacco are the leading causes of oral cancer in the United States.

Tobacco is carcinogenic, which means it contains chemicals that can cause cancer by damaging your DNA.

Other causes of oral cancer include:

  • Alcohol intake: If you drink large amounts of alcohol, you may be at an increased risk of oral cancer. However, every person is different, and enjoying an occasional glass of wine with dinner doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get oral cancer.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection: This sexually transmitted infection can cause oropharyngeal cancer, especially HPV-16. If you’re at risk of HPV, ensure you get a vaccination to prevent catching it.
  • Excessive sun exposure: Not using ultraviolet (UV) protection, such as a lip balm with a sun protection factor (SPF), and spending lots of time in the sun may cause oral cancer. Recurring sunburns of the lip are a common cause of lip cancer.
  • A family history of oral cancer: If you have a sibling with a history of oral cavity cancer, you may be nearly twice as likely to develop the same condition. However, lifestyle choices such as avoiding tobacco use can help you to reduce your risk.

The best way to prevent oral cancer is to quit smoking or chewing tobacco. This will not only benefit your overall health but will reduce your risk of developing oral cancer.

Other ways to help you prevent oral cancer include:

  • Use SPF: Protecting your lips and face from harmful sun exposure can prevent skin cancer as well as certain types of oral cancers. Try a wide-brim hat and sunscreen.
  • Eating antioxidant-rich foods: Antioxidants can help prevent damage to your cells, so increasing your intake through diet or supplements can reduce your risk of developing cancer.
  • Limit alcohol intake: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you should try to limit your consumption to 2 drinks per day if you’re male and 1 drink per day if you’re female.

The risk of developing oral cancer increases with age and is more prevalent among males. Black people may be at an increased risk of developing oral cancer.

Squamous cell carcinoma is the most prevalent type of oral cancer, which can occur on the skin of any area of your mouth, such as your lips, gums, or tongue.

Smoking or chewing tobacco and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can cause oral cancers. Two of the most effective things you can do to help prevent many types of cancer are to reduce your alcohol intake if you drink and reduce your use of tobacco if you smoke.

Receiving treatment while oral cancer is in stage 1 or 2 can improve your outlook.