Everyone over age 16 should perform a 2-minute oral cancer self-exam once a month. Early detection can save your life.

When it comes to cancer prevention, self-examinations are a tool that can help you detect when there are changes in your body worth bringing up to a doctor.

For example, breast self-exams can help you determine whether there are changes to your breast tissue. Skin cancer self-exams can help discover cancerous moles.

What you might not know is that you can also do an oral cancer check at home.

The National Cancer Institute estimates that over 54,500 people in the United States will develop oral cancer or throat cancer in 2023.

But with early detection and treatment, survival rates are 80–90%. That’s why doing regular oral cancer self-examinations is so important.

Learn how to perform a thorough oral cancer check at home and what to look for.

According to the Mouth Cancer Foundation, everyone ages 16 years and older should perform a 2-minute oral cancer self-exam once a month right after cleaning their teeth.

Once you’ve flossed and brushed your teeth, remove any dentures or retainers, clean your fingers, and position yourself in an area with good lighting. Then follow these steps:

Step 1: Look at your face

Face the mirror with your mouth closed and examine your face. Take note if there is any swelling you may not have noticed or any skin changes.

Then, turn your head from side to side. Lastly, pull the skin taut over the facial muscles. Lumps and bumps are easier to see this way.

Step 2: Check your neck

Next, run the balls of your fingers down the large muscles on either side of your neck. Feel for any swelling or enlarged lymph nodes. Take note if both sides feel the same.

Also feel under your lower jaw for any bumps or swelling.

Step 3: Examine your lips

Now, pull your upper lip upward and look and feel for any sores, discoloration, lumps, or changes in texture.

Then, pull your bottom lip out and down and do the same thing.

Make sure to feel around with your index fingers to detect any changes in texture.

Step 4: Feel around your gums

Place your thumb and forefinger on the gums on either side of your teeth and work your way back to the molars, feeling for any unusual textures or lumps.

Do this on both sides of the bottom teeth, and then move to the top teeth and gums.

Step 5: Peek inside your cheeks

Open your mouth and with your forefinger, pull your cheek to the side. Look for any red or white patches.

With your finger or tongue, feel around for ulcers, lumps, tenderness, or rough patches. Repeat on the other cheek.

Step 6: Take a look at your tongue

Stick out your tongue and look at each side. Be mindful of any sores, swelling, or changes in color.

Lift your tongue to the roof of your mouth to examine the underside of your tongue. Press your finger on your tongue to check for swelling, ulcers, or soreness.

Step 7: Check the floor of your mouth

Lift your tongue and check the floor of your mouth for any red or white patches and sores. Gently push the area to detect lumps, swelling, or painful areas.

Step 8: Examine the roof of your mouth

Finally, open your mouth and tilt your head back. Look for any sores or changes in color, such as red or white patches. Then, use your finger to feel for any texture changes.

As you do your oral self-exam, take note of anything unusual that you find. A few things can mimic the symptoms of oral cancer.

For example, having a cold could cause a sore throat with swollen glands. Canker sores can develop if you’ve recently bit the inside of your lip. A sore spot on your tongue may form if you accidentally burn it by biting into something hot.

All of these symptoms, however, should resolve by themselves within 3 weeks.

Visit a dentist or doctor right away if you notice any of the following during your oral self-exam:

  • a sore throat or hoarseness that doesn’t go away
  • a mass or lump in the neck
  • difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • red or white patches in the mouth
  • a sore that doesn’t heal or bleeds easily
  • an abnormal lump on the gums
  • thickening of gum tissue
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What to look for when performing an oral self-exam. Illustration by Jason Hoffman

“Oral cancer” is a term that encompasses cancer that develops on the:

  • tongue and under the tongue
  • tissue in the mouth and gums
  • tonsils
  • salivary glands
  • lips
  • throat at the back of the mouth

Common symptoms include:

  • sores, irritated tissue, lumps, or thick patches on the gums, lips, or throat
  • white or red patches in the mouth
  • a chronic sore throat or hoarseness, or feeling like something is stuck in your throat
  • a lump in the neck
  • difficulty chewing, swallowing, talking, or moving your jaw or tongue
  • jaw swelling
  • bleeding or pain in your mouth
  • numbness in the tongue or mouth
  • pain in the ears

According to the American Cancer Society, oral cancer most commonly affects the:

  • tongue
  • tonsils
  • back of the throat
  • gums

Of all the types of oral cancers, squamous cell carcinoma is by far the most common. It’s responsible for 9 out of 10 cases, reports the U.K. National Health Service.

The most common cause of oral cancer is tobacco and alcohol use, states the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. Using both tobacco and alcohol increases your risk even more.

Other risk factors include:

Learn how you can prevent or lower your risk of oral cancer.

Early detection and treatment for oral cancer is extremely important.

Doing an oral cancer check at home once a month is a great way to stay on top of any changes in your mouth and gums. Taking 2 minutes once a month to check for lumps and bumps could save your life.