Warning Signs of Oral Cancer: Are You at Risk?

Medically reviewed by Monica Bien, PA-C on August 8, 2016Written by Saher V., MD on August 8, 2016
oral cancer warning signs

This year, close to 50,000 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer. Men are more likely to have this type of cancer, but the death rate has decreased within the past 30 years.

Keep reading to learn more about who’s at risk for oral cancel, as well as the signs, symptoms, and causes.

Signs and symptoms

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 and symptoms include mouth sores, or pain that does not go away. Oral cancer may also appear as white or red patches on the gums, tonsil, or the lining of the mouth.

Other symptoms include:

  • swelling in the neck
  • a lump in the cheek
  • difficulty swallowing or chewing
  • feeling like something is caught in the throat

Causes and risk factors

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

These factors are known to increase the risk of the development of oral cancer:

  • Tobacco: Smoking cigarettes, cigars, pipes, or using smokeless tobacco as snuff or chewing tobacco can bring about oral cancer.
  • Consuming 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.
  • HPV: Cancers that are linked to human papilloma virus (HPV) are generally found at the back of the throat, the base of the tongue, and in the tonsils.
  • Sun exposure: An excess of sun exposure on your lips increases the risk of oral cancer. You can reduce the danger by using a lip balm or cream with SPF.

Other risk factors include being older than 45, being exposed to radiation, and having another 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’ve already started.

You can also reduce your risk by:

  • reducing your exposure to 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

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

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