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What is oral cancer?

Oral cancer refers to an abnormal growth or sore in the mouth or throat which could include lips, tongue, floor of the mouth beneath the tongue, roof of mouth, cheeks and throat.  

Detecting oral cancer early

  • Visit your general dentist twice a year.
    Share your medical history with your dentist, including any sexually transmitted disease diagnosis.
    Ask your dentist to perform an oral cancer exam.
  • Perform a self-exam for oral cancer monthly. It is a two minute process that could could save your life!
    Watch - American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons Oral Cancer Self-Exam
    Contact your dentist right away if you notice any abnormal growths, discoloration, tenderness, or bleeding.

What are symptoms of oral cancer?

  • Sores or irritation that won't heal
  • Red or white patches
  • Pain, tenderness or numbness in mouth or lips
  • Lump, thickening, rough spot, crust or small eroded area
  • Difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking or moving your tongue or jaw
  • Change in the way your teeth fit together when you close your mouth

The Oral Cancer Foundation publishes examples of cancer and non-cancerous lesions, sores and irregularities. 

Image credit: Oral Cancer FoundationImage credit: Oral Cancer Foundation

What are the risk factors for developing oral cancer?

  • Tobacco use
  • Nicotine use
  • Alcohol use
  • Sun exposure
  • Gender (men are more likely than women to develop oral cancer)
  • HPV diagnosis
    The HPV vaccine can prevent 90% of cancers caused by HPV including oral cancers.
    The HPV vaccine is recommended for all children ages 11-12 but can be given as early as age 9. 
    Anyone through age 26 should receive the vaccine if not already vaccinated.
    Some adults aged 27 through 45 who are not already vaccinated might choose to get the HPV vaccine after speaking with their doctor about risks of HPV and benefits of vaccination. 

How do dentists and hygienists screen for oral cancer?

An initial oral cancer screening should take fewer than five minutes. A patient does not have to do anything special to prepare for an oral cancer screening. The oral healthcare provider will inspect all parts of the inside of the mouth. They will look for irregularities on all sides of the tongue and underneath. The dentists or hygienists will feel tissues in the mouth and neck for lumps or abnormalities. Early detection from an oral cancer screening could lead to follow up care and testing. 

A dental student performs an oral cancer screening exam on a patient.