The primary screening test for oral cancer is a clinical exam of the mouth. These are often done during routine dental checkups. Yearly screenings are recommended for early detection and treatment.

Oral cancer develops in the tissues of your mouth. The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that 54,540 new diagnoses of oral cancer will be made in 2023.

Many oral cancers aren’t found until later stages when the outlook is poorer. Because of this, early detection and treatment is vital. Keep reading to learn more about the screening recommendations for oral cancer.

The importance of early detection

The outlook for oral cancer is best when it’s diagnosed and treated early. When oral cancer remains localized to the mouth, its 5-year survival rate is 86.3%.

However, about 70% of oral cancers are diagnosed when they’ve already spread regionally or distantly. The 5-year survival rates for these cancers are 69% and 40.4%, respectively. Because of this, early detection of oral cancer is vital.

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illustration showing what to look for when performing an oral cancer self-examShare on Pinterest
What to look for when performing an oral cancer self-exam. Medical illustration by Jason Hoffman

According to the National Cancer Institute and the ACS, there’s no routine screening test in use for oral cancer.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force notes that the main screening test for oral cancer is a clinical exam of the mouth. This is often done during routine dental checkups, although a doctor may do them as well.

The ACS notes that additional tests may also be used as a part of oral cancer screening, particularly in people at higher risk. These tests typically use special lights or dyes to look for abnormal areas.

However, the American Dental Association notes that available evidence doesn’t support the use of these tests for evaluating mouth lesions. A big reason for this is that they have a high rate of false-positives, which could result in unnecessary specialist referrals or biopsies.

Additionally, while human papillomavirus (HPV) is a risk factor for oral cancers, there’s currently no approved test to check for HPV in the mouth or throat.

Risk factors for oral cancer

The known risk factors for oral cancer include:

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Before doing a clinical oral exam, a dentist or doctor will get an updated medical and lifestyle history from you. This may include asking about:

  • your history of tobacco and alcohol use
  • whether or not anyone in your family has had oral cancer
  • if you’ve recently noticed any concerning areas in your mouth
  • if you’ve ever had a biopsy on a suspicious area in your mouth or have previously been diagnosed with oral cancer

During the exam, the dentist or doctor will look at and feel different areas of your face, lips, and mouth. These include the:

  • outside and inside of your lips
  • insides of both cheeks
  • your gums
  • sides, top, and bottom of your tongue
  • roof and floor of your mouth
  • back of your throat
  • lymph nodes in your neck

They’ll be looking for lesions in and around your mouth that could signal the presence of oral cancer. Additionally, the tactile part of the exam allows them to feel for lumps or masses that could be a tumor.

Oral self-exams

Because you know your body best and may pick up on concerning changes first, it’s also important to do regular self-exams of your mouth. Like a clinical oral exam, self-exams only take a few minutes to do.

During a self-exam, you’ll check your lips, tongue, and mouth for lesions or lumps while standing in front of a bathroom mirror. If you notice anything new or concerning, you can then see a dentist or doctor to have them check it out.

Oral health recommendations

In addition to doing oral self-exams, there are also other things that you can do to keep your mouth healthy. These include:

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In order to detect it early, it’s important to be aware of the signs of oral cancer. These can include:

Other symptoms that oral cancer may have spread to your throat and surrounding tissues include:

Most dentists do a visual and tactile oral cancer screening as a part of a routine dental checkup. In this case, it’s often covered by dental insurance at no additional charge.

If your dentist uses special dyes or lights as a part of screening, there may be additional costs. Because of this, it’s important to talk with your dentist about the type of oral cancer screening they do and if there are additional costs or fees.

Where to find free or low cost oral cancer screening

If you’re concerned about the potential costs of oral cancer screening, use these resources below to find free or low cost screenings:

  • The American Dental Association’s search tool can help you find a dentist in your area that may give back to the community by offering free or low cost care.
  • Community health centers are funded by the federal government and offer free or low cost medical and dental care.
  • Many dental schools offer dental clinics that provide low cost dental care.
  • State and local health departments may have resources that can help you to locate free or low cost medical or dental care in your area.
  • Some, but not all, government-funded programs may include free or low cost dental care. As such, be sure to look into your eligibility for Medicare, Medicaid, or CHIP.
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Oral cancer is often diagnosed at later stages when the outlook is poorer. This makes finding and treating it early all the more vital.

There’s no routine screening test for oral cancer. However, the main screening tool is a clinical oral exam where a dentist or doctor looks and feels around your mouth, lips, and face for signs of oral cancer.

Most people receive oral cancer screening as part of a routine dental checkup. It’s also important to do regular self-exams at home to look for any new or suspicious changes that need to be checked by a medical professional.