Overview

Oral cancer is a cancer that develops in the tissues of the mouth or throat. It can occur in the tongue, tonsils, gums, and other parts of the mouth.

This year, more than 51,000 U.S. people will be diagnosed with oral cancer. Men are more likely to have this type of cancer, though there are ways to minimize your risks.

Within the past 30 years, the death rate for oral cancer has decreased. As with other cancers, prompt treatment and early diagnosis improve your chances of survival. Are you at risk? Keep reading to learn more about who’s at risk for oral cancer, as well as the signs, symptoms, and causes.

What are the signs of oral cancer?

As with many other types of cancer, the signs and symptoms of oral cancer vary from person to person. Some of the most common signs include mouth sores, or pain that doesn’t go away.

Oral cancer may also appear as white or red patches on the gums, tonsils, or the lining of the mouth. This is what cancer in the mouth looks like.

Other symptoms include:

  • swelling in your neck
  • a lump in your cheek
  • difficulty swallowing or chewing
  • feeling like something is caught in your throat
  • trouble moving your jaw or tongue
  • weight loss
  • constant bad breath

What puts me at risk for oral cancer?

Researchers aren’t exactly sure what causes oral cancers. But scientists now believe that cancers start after there’s damage or mutations in the genetic code that controls cell growth and death.

These factors are known to increase your risk of developing oral cancer:

  • Tobacco use. Smoking cigarettes, cigars, pipes, or using smokeless tobacco or chewing tobacco is one of the most well-known risks of oral cancer.
  • Consuming large amounts of alcohol. Heavy drinkers are more likely to be diagnosed with oral cancer. For people who use tobacco along with alcohol, the danger is much higher.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV). Cancers that are linked to HPV are generally found at the back of the throat, the base of the tongue, and in the tonsils. Although the overall cases of oral cancer are dropping, cases due to HPV have been rising.
  • Sun exposure. An excess of sun exposure on your lips increases your risk of oral cancer. You can reduce the danger by using a lip balm or cream containing SPF.

Other risk factors include being older than 45, being exposed to radiation, and having another type of head and neck cancer.

Minimizing your risks

Cancers of the mouth are among the most preventable types of cancers. The number one thing you can do to prevent oral cancer is to never start smoking, or quit smoking if you currently do.

You can also reduce your risk by:

  • limiting your exposure to the sun and wearing SPF lip balm
  • eating a balanced, well-rounded diet of fruits and vegetables
  • drinking in moderation, if you drink alcohol
  • removing your dentures at night and cleaning them every day
  • practicing good oral health habits

While it’s impossible to fully prevent oral cancer, taking these steps can help reduce your chances of diagnosis. Visiting your dentist on a regular basis will help ensure any signs of oral cancer are identified as early as possible.