Avoiding tobacco and alcohol are the best ways to reduce your oral cancer risk. Other steps include lifestyle and dietary changes, regular dental check-ups, and vaccination against HPV.

Oral cancer develops in your mouth or throat and makes up about 3% of all types of cancer. It mainly affects people older than 40 years. Those assigned male at birth are twice as likely to get it as those assigned female at birth.

Socioeconomics, genetics, age, and gender play a part in oral cancer risk. And while these factors may be out of your control, you can reduce your risk in other ways.

Here are six to know.

Smoking tobacco is the number one risk factor for oral cancer. The very high risk associated with oral tobacco also applies to smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes.

By some estimates, smokers have a 5–10 times higher chance of dying from oral cancer than people who never smoked. The more tobacco you use, the greater your risk.

That’s because chemicals in tobacco and tobacco products are carcinogenic, which means they are known to cause cancer. When you use tobacco, the tissues in your mouth and throat are exposed to the carcinogens. They can cause cancer to form and then spread to other parts of your body.

Deciding to quit or not to use tobacco can lower your chance of several types of cancer — not just oral cancer.

Most mouth cancer is due to smoking or drinking too much alcohol. Both habits together increase your chances even more.

While alcohol doesn’t contain carcinogens that can directly cause oral cancer, it can affect the lining of your mouth, making you more prone to the effects of carcinogens.

According to the National Cancer Institute, alcohol has the following effects on oral cancer risk:

  • Moderate drinkers have nearly double the chance of mouth and throat cancers.
  • Heavy drinkers have five times the chance of mouth and throat cancer.
  • Heavy drinkers have 2.6 times the chance of laryngeal (voice box) cancers.

Another way to protect yourself is to have regular dental checkups.

There’s a link between dental conditions and oral cancer. While tobacco use can cause several dental problems, even dental problems not resulting from tobacco use are linked to oral cancer. Regular dental care can help keep your mouth healthy and protect your teeth.

A 2021 study found that periodontal disease may increase the chance of certain kinds of oral cancer. Researchers looked at the data and found that oral squamous cell carcinoma cases went up as the severity of dental disease did.

Regular checkups can also help you treat oral cancer sooner. At your visit, your dentist may be able to spot early red flags of oral cancer. Pre-cancerous growths may appear as gray or white patches that won’t come off when scraped (leukoplakia) or raised red areas that bleed easily when scraped (erythroplakia).

Doctors can remove and biopsy both types to see if you have oral cancer. Screening and early treatment usually lead to better outcomes.

Early signs of oral cancer

Knowing the early signs of oral cancer can help you spot and treat it sooner, leading to better outcomes. Early symptoms include:

  • pain or bleeding in your mouth
  • white or red patches in your mouth
  • patches, sores, or lumps in your throat
  • pain in your ear
  • a sore throat that won’t go away
  • a lump in your neck
  • jaw swelling
  • numbness in your mouth or tongue
  • problems chewing, speaking, or moving your jaw or tongue
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Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common sexually transmitted disease that can be spread to your mouth and throat through oral sex.

In up to 90% of cases, HPV goes away on its own. When it doesn’t, it can cause problems like cancers of the genitals or throat. It can take years or decades for HPV-related cancer to develop.

HPV causes most throat cancer, and such cases are on the rise.

That’s why many health organizations recommend HPV vaccination. The vaccine works best for preteens through age 26 years. It’s less effective after age 26 because most people have already been exposed to the virus by then.

Sunlight can also increase your risk for oral cancer, especially lip cancer. Lip cancer is more common in people who spend a lot of time in the sun or have outdoor jobs.

To protect your lips and skin from UV radiation, consider the following:

Researchers believe what you eat regularly can help or hurt your chances of developing oral cancer.

A 2021 review found that a diet rich in foods that contain antioxidants and other nutrients helps prevent oral cancers, although more study is needed to find out why.

The review authors also found that a diet rich in these foods has the potential to reduce your risk:

They also found that a pro-inflammatory diet can increase your risk of developing oral cancer. A pro-inflammatory diet contains a lot of:

  • red meats
  • fried foods
  • sugary foods and drinks that raise your blood sugar quickly

Some risk factors for oral cancer are out of your control, but there are ways to prevent or reduce your risk. The most important step is avoiding tobacco and alcohol, as those are the most significant risk factors.

Other steps include vaccinating against HPV, eating a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and protecting yourself from the sun. Taking care of your dental health and getting regular dental checkups can also protect you and help detect signs of oral cancer early.