Mouth cancer affects the mouth area, lips, gums, and throat. This type of cancer is usually found in smokers, heavy drinkers, or people with a history of HPV. Adjusting certain lifestyle habits may reduce your risk.

Mouth cancer includes cancers of the mouth and back of the throat. If detected early, most forms of mouth cancer are treatable.

Early symptoms may not be very noticeable, but unusual symptoms in the mouth or throat area lasting longer than 2 weeks should prompt a doctor visit. Usually, mouth cancer is more common in people over 40, but it can also occur in younger people.

This article looks at how common mouth cancer is and where in the mouth it typically appears. It also examines the potential risk factors and treatment options.

Mouth cancer, also called oral cancer, is a fairly common cancer. It makes up about 3% of all cancers diagnosed annually in the United States.

Additional mouth cancer incidence rates include:

  • Mouth cancer is 3 times as common in people assigned male at birth than those assigned female at birth.
  • Overall, about 11.5 adults per 100,000 will get mouth cancer.
  • An estimated 54,540 new mouth or throat cancer cases will be diagnosed in 2023.
  • There will be about 11,500 deaths from mouth or throat cancer in 2023.
  • Mouth cancers are slightly more common in white people than in Black people.
  • The incidence of mouth cancer increases with age, with an average diagnosis of 64 years.
  • Non-Hispanic white men over age 65 are the most likely to contract mouth cancer.
  • Mouth cancers linked to HPV infection increased yearly by 1.3% in people assigned female at birth and 2.8% in people assigned male at birth from 2015-2019.
  • Worldwide, Papua New Guinea had the highest overall rate of mouth cancers in 2020, followed by Bangladesh.

Mouth cancer is most likely to occur on the tongue and floor of the mouth and on the lips. It can also be in the gums, cheeks, tonsils, salivary glands, the roof of the mouth, and throat area.

While some issues in and around the mouth may not be a cause for concern, contact a doctor or dentist if you have any of these symptoms for longer than 2 weeks:

  • a sore throat or feeling that something is caught in your throat
  • a red or white patch in your mouth
  • any irritation, sore, thick patch, or lump in your throat, lip, or mouth
  • difficulty swallowing, chewing, or speaking
  • difficulty moving your tongue or jaw
  • numbness in your mouth or tongue
  • ear pain
  • jaw swelling that causes dentures (if you have them) to be uncomfortable

The exact causes of mouth cancer are unknown, but the following risk factors increase your chances of mouth cancer developing:

  • Smoking: Most mouth cancers are related to or tobacco use. Any form of tobacco use will increase your risk of oral cancer. It’s estimated that about 90% of mouth cancers worldwide are due to tobacco use, alcohol consumption, or a combination of both.
  • Alcohol use: Heavy alcohol use is known to increase your risk. Heavy smoking and drinking combined will increase that risk further.
  • HPV: Infection with some forms of HPV can cause mouth cancers.
  • Age: People over 40 have a higher risk of mouth cancer.
  • Sun exposure: Too much sun exposure can also increase your mouth cancer risk.
  • Being male: People assigned male at birth are almost twice as likely to get oral cancer.

Treatment depends on the cancer’s stage and the area of the mouth or throat that is affected. Generally, treatment options include:

  • Surgery: Surgery to remove cancerous areas is usually an initial treatment for all mouth cancers. In early stage or small cancers, this may be the only treatment needed. Depending on how large an area is removed, reconstructive surgery may also be needed.
  • Radiation therapy: Sometimes radiation therapy alone is used for small mouth cancers, such as in the lip area. It’s also used after surgery or along with chemotherapy to prevent recurrence or help manage later stage cancers.
  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy may be used alone or combined with radiation in later stage mouth cancers.
  • Clinical trials: Many experts suggest that people with head and neck cancers consider a clinical trial, to possibly take advantage of newer treatments.

Mouth cancer is most treatable when diagnosed and addressed in an early stage. The type of mouth and throat cancer will also factor into the long-term outlook.

Generally, according to the SEER database, the average 5-year survival rate for all mouth and throat cancers is 68%. Several variables can influence the survival rate, such as:

  • the cancer’s stage at diagnosis
  • a person’s age and overall health
  • the type of cancer you have
  • your cancer’s general response to treatment.

Mouth and throat cancer is a fairly common type of cancer. It’s usually seen more in white men over the age of 40.

Overall, the lifetime risk of developing mouth cancer is about 1 in 60 for men and 1 in 141 for women. Black and Hispanic people are less likely to develop mouth cancer than white people.

If diagnosed early, mouth cancer can be treated. Treatment options may include surgery alone or surgery combined with radiation or chemotherapy.

Limiting tobacco and alcohol use and regular dental and oral health screenings can reduce your risk of developing mouth cancer.