Oral cancer is rare in children. Talk with your child’s doctor if you see a sore, lump, or other changes inside your child’s mouth. The vast majority are not cancer.

young child getting a mouth exam to check for oral cancerShare on Pinterest
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Oral cancer includes a range of types, such as cancer of the:

  • tongue
  • throat
  • inner cheeks
  • lips
  • floor of the mouth

Oral cancer is much less common in children than in adults. Most mouth lesions and oral tumors in children are not cancerous. But certain rare genetic and health conditions can predispose young people to developing oral cancer.

Doctors and dentists can examine the mouth and help determine when a child may need further evaluation. When oral cancer is diagnosed, pediatric oncologists can direct effective treatment plans.

Here’s more information about oral cancer.

Oral cancer is extremely rare in children.

In the United States, only 0.4% of all oral cancers are diagnosed in people younger than 20 years old, according to the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program.

SEER data estimates that each year, there will be 0.24 cases of oral cancer per 100,000 people under 20 years old.

Benign, or noncancerous, lesions of the oral cavity are far more common in kids. Over 90% of oral cavity tumors found in children are found to be benign, according to the National Cancer Institute.

The first symptom of oral cancer is usually a lesion inside the mouth that doesn’t heal within a few weeks.

Mouth lesions may look like:

  • sores
  • white or red patches
  • lumps or bumps
  • areas of thickening or texture change
  • gum bleeding

In children, many common, benign conditions can cause oral sores, white patches, or gum irritation. These include:

If you have any concerns about something you’ve seen in your child’s mouth, talk with your child’s doctor or dentist.

Risk factors for childhood oral cancer include:

There may be other genetic risk factors for oral cancer that are not yet known. Often, doctors cannot identify predisposing risk factors or causes when oral cancer occurs in childhood.

Tobacco and alcohol use are known risk factors for adult oral cancer, but they are not associated with childhood oral cancer.

Females with high risk cervical HPV and cervical cancer also generally do not need to worry about passing a risk of oral cancer to their children. Older research has detected a very low risk of children contracting a maternal HPV infection and sustaining it in their oral cavity into their childhood or teen years.

Oral cancers diagnosed in children may be lymphomas or sarcomas. Squamous cell carcinoma, the most common type of oral cancer in adults, may also occur.

Your child’s doctor first talks with you about the symptoms. They then examine your child by inspecting and feeling the area of concern.

Sometimes the doctor may request a consultation with another specialist, such as a dentist, oral and maxillofacial specialist, or an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist.

If needed, the doctor may order imaging studies, such as an X-ray, CT scan, or MRI.

Sometimes, the doctor may recommend a biopsy of the area. In children, the vast majority of oral biopsies yield noncancerous results.

Treatment recommendations for oral cancer vary depending on individual circumstances.

A childhood cancer specialist called a pediatric oncologist determines the treatment plan. Other specialists may also be part of your child’s care team, such as:

  • pediatric surgeon
  • pediatric ENT specialist
  • oral and maxillofacial surgeon
  • radiation oncologist

Typically, treatment for oral cancer includes surgery. It may also include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or both.

The outlook for children with oral cancer depends on individual circumstances, such as:

  • the specific type of oral cancer
  • whether the cancer has spread
  • the presence of underlying health conditions
  • the treatment and the cancer’s response to treatment

According to the National Cancer Institute, children with oral cancer have overall survival rates equal to or better than adults with oral cancer.

What are three early signs of oral cancer?

Oral cancer usually first appears as a lesion inside the mouth that doesn’t heal within a few weeks. It could look like a:

  • red or white patch on the tongue, throat, inner cheeks, or lips
  • sore or ulcer
  • lump, bump, or change in texture

Early oral cancer lesions are often painless.

Can kids get buccal cancer?

The buccal mucosa is the soft tissue membrane that lines the inside of your lips and cheeks inside your mouth. The buccal mucosa is one possible location of oral cancer.

Oral cancer is quite rare in children in general. Most cancers of the buccal mucosa are squamous cell carcinomas, and this is one type of oral cancer in children.

How long do typical mouth sores usually last?

In otherwise healthy children, mouth sores usually occur due to common childhood viral illnesses like hand-foot-mouth disease, herpangina, or the HSV-1 virus.

Injuries or irritants can also cause mouth sores. If canker sores, sometimes called aphthous ulcers, run in your family, you’ve probably noticed that they sometimes appear during periods of stress or without a clear trigger.

Mouth sores caused by these common conditions can be quite painful. They typically heal on their own within 1–3 weeks.

If you have concerns about your child’s mouth sores or other questions about symptoms, talk with a doctor.

What can I do to prevent oral cancer?

Childhood oral cancer is quite rare. If you’re concerned that your child has one of the rare risk factors for early development of oral cancer, talk more with a doctor about routine monitoring.

The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that routine childhood dental visits start around the first birthday and continue every 6 months.

Regular dental visits include an examination of the oral cavity. Maintaining your child’s dental health has many other health benefits too.

HPV infection is a risk factor for oral cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends all children receive the HPV vaccine starting at age 9–11 years.

Read more about HPV vaccination.

Finally, eating a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables, avoiding alcohol, and avoiding any tobacco and betel nut products can help prevent oral cancer later in life.

Oral cancer is quite rare in children. In kids, most biopsies of mouth lesions and tumors have benign results.

The risk factors for oral cancer are different for children and adults. Certain rare genetic conditions, transplant complications, and oral HPV infection may be associated with oral cancer in childhood.

If you’re concerned your child may have a risk factor, talk more with a doctor about regular oral exams and monitoring.

The oral cancers that occur in children may include different types than those most commonly found in adults. Pediatric oncologists are experts in the treatment of childhood cancers. They can help direct the most effective care plan for kids with oral cancer.

Routine checkups with a pediatrician and dentist, timely immunizations, and healthy habits like consuming a balanced diet and avoiding tobacco and alcohol can help prevent oral cancers in adulthood.