Frequently Asked Questions About Or


Oral cancer is a disease that occurs in the mouth (oral cavity) or the part of the throat at the back of the mouth (oropharynx). The oral cavity and oropharynx include the lips, the inside lining of the lips and cheeks, the salivary glands, the teeth, the gums, the tongue, the floor of the mouth below the tongue, the bony roof of the mouth (hard palate), and the area at the back of your mouth (soft palate).1

According to the National Cancer Institute, most incidents of oral cancer begin in the flat (squamous) cells that cover the surfaces of the mouth, tongue, and lips. These cancers are called squamous cell carcinomas.1

Common symptoms of oral cancer include:1

  • Patches inside your mouth or on your lips that are white, a mixture of red and white, or red
  • A sore on your lip or in your mouth that won't heal
  • Unexplained bleeding in your mouth
  • Unexplained loose teeth
  • Difficulty or pain when swallowing
  • Difficulty wearing dentures due to swelling or sores on your gums
  • A lump in your neck
  • An earache that doesn't go away
  • Numbness of lower lip and chin

If you experience any of these symptoms, be sure to see your doctor or dentist. These symptoms most often do not necessarily mean cancer; infections or other problems can cause similar symptoms.1 A visit to your doctor or dentist can help to identify the problem so it can be diagnosed and treated as early as possible.

Research points to certain risk factors that could increase the likelihood of developing oral cancer. The chart includes some of the more common risk factors. By reducing your exposure to these risks, you may help reduce your chances of developing oral cancer.

Risk Factor How to Reduce Risk

Tobacco - Tobacco use causes most oral cancers.1

Smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes, or using smokeless tobacco (such as snuff and chewing tobacco) causes oral cancer.1

Alcohol - People who are heavy drinkers are more likely to develop oral cancer than people who are non-drinkers.1 Risk for oral cancer increases with the amount of alcohol that a person drinks.1

A person’s risk increases more if they use tobacco and alcohol.

Never engaging in tobacco usage or limiting/eliminating your exposure to tobacco greatly lowers your risk of developing oral cancer.2

The same is true of drinking.

Limiting your alcohol consumption or never drinking alcohol, can reduce your risk.2

For more information about quitting tobacco, see the “Where can I get more information” section at the end of this document

Ultraviolet (UV) Light - sunlight is the main source of UV light for most people. Cancers of the lip are more common in people who have prolonged exposure to sunlight.1

Limit your exposure to UV Light. Be safe in the sun by reducing your exposure during the middle of the day, when the sun's UV rays are strongest. If you are out in the sun, wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect your face and lips, and use a sunscreen and lip balm with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 15.2

Unhealthy Diet - several studies suggest that a diet low in fruits and vegetables may be linked to an increased risk of cancers of the oral cavity.1

Eat a healthy diet - although it's not exactly clear what substances in healthy foods might be responsible for reducing the risk of oral cancer, the American Cancer Society recommends eating a healthy diet, with an emphasis on foods from plant sources, including 2 ½ cups of fresh fruits or vegetables daily.2

Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) – several of the HPV viruses can infect the mouth and throat. These viruses are passed from person to person through sexual contact.1 Cancer cells; at the base of the tongue, at the back of the throat, in the tonsils, or in the soft palate are likely linked with HPV infection.1

Avoid HPV infection – HPV risk of infection of the mouth and throat is increased in those who have oral sex and multiple sex partners.2 Although HPV is linked to oral cancers, most people with HPV infections of the mouth and throat do not go on to develop this cancer.2 There are vaccines to inoculate against HPV that reduce the risk of infection with certain types of HPV. HPV vaccination may also lower the risk of mouth and throat cancers, but this has not yet been proven.2

Some early cancers have symptoms that cause patients to seek medical or dental attention. Unfortunately, some cancers may not cause symptoms until they've reached an advanced stage or may cause symptoms similar to those caused by a disease other than cancer, such as periodontal (gum) disease. For this reason, it’s important that you visit your dentist regularly for a routine dental checkup. An oral cancer screening should be a part of a routine dental check-up and can identify oral cancers and pre-cancerous areas early.1 Your dentist will check your mouth and throat for red or white patches, lumps, swelling, or other problems.1 The exam includes looking carefully at the roof of your mouth, back of your throat, and insides of your cheeks and lips, your dentist will also gently pull out your tongue to check the sides and underneath.1 The floor of your mouth and lymph nodes in your neck will also be checked.1

Any sore, discoloration, induration, prominent (exophytic) tissue, irritation, hoarseness, complaints of difficulty in swallowing, unilateral earaches, which do not resolve on its own, with or without treatment, within a two week period should be considered suspect and worthy of further examination or referral.3 If your dentist identifies a suspicious area, he or she may perform a brush biopsy of the area, using a small brush to gather cell samples. The specimen is then sent to a lab for computer analysis. Your dentist may also recommend an incisional biopsy, where the dentist removes part of the suspicious area for further laboratory testing.3 The only way to diagnose oral cancer is through biopsy3.

Ask your dentist about an oral cancer screening if you are unsure one has been completed.

For more on oral cancer, its prevention and treatment, oral health, and quitting tobacco, visit the following web sites:

For information about oral cancer and oral health:

American Cancer Society at

The Oral Cancer Foundation at

National Cancer Institute at

American Dental Association at

For information about quitting tobacco:

The Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER can talk with callers about ways to quit smoking and about groups that offer help to smokers who want to quit. Groups offer counseling in person or by phone. The Federal Government provides a free smoking cessation web site at

1 National Cancer Institute, “What You Need to Know About Oral Cancer,” Accessed 04/17/2018.
2 American Cancer Society, “Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers Be Prevented, ” Accessed 04/17/2018.
3 The Oral Cancer Foundation, “The Role of Dental and Medical Professionals,” Accessed 04/17/2018.