Frequently Asked Questions About Or


Oral cancer occurs in the mouth (oral cavity), oropharyngeal cancer starts in the middle part of the throat, just at the back of the mouth. These two areas 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), the area at the back of your mouth (soft palate), tonsils and the sides and back of the throat.1

Cancer starts when cells in your body grow out of control. According to the National Cancer Institute, most incidents of oral cancer begin in the flat (squamous) cells that form in the lining of the mouth and throat. These cancers are called squamous cell carcinomas.1

Common symptoms of oral cancer include:2

  • sore on lip or in the mouth that does not heal
  •  pain in the mouth that does not go away
  •  white or red patches on the gums, tongue, tonsils or lining of the mouth
  •  lumps or thickening in lips, mouth or cheeks
  •  sore throat or feeling of something in throat that does not go away
  •  trouble chewing or swallowing; trouble moving the jaw or tongue
  •  numbness of the tongue, lips or other areas of the mouth
  •  swelling or pain in the jaw
  •  loosening of the teeth, pain around the teeth, dentures that become ill-fitting or uncomfortable
  • pain in the ear
  • voice changes
  • lump or mass in the back of throat or neck

Many of these symptoms can also be caused by diseases that are not cancer.2 But it’s still important to see your dentist if any of these conditions last more than 2 weeks so that the cause can be found and treated.2

A risk factor is anything that increases the likelihood of getting a disease, like cancer. Some risk factors can be avoided (like smoking) and some cannot (like age and family history). Having a risk factor or even many does not mean you will get the disease.3 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 – the more you smoke or use oral tobacco the greater the risk.3

Alcohol - heavy drinkers have greater risk than light drinkers.3

A person’s risk is 30 times higher if a heavy drinker and use tobacco.3

Never smoking or using tobacco or limiting/eliminating your exposure to tobacco greatly lowers your risk of developing oral cancer.4

Limiting your alcohol
consumption or never
drinking alcohol, can reduce your risk.4

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.3

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, and use a sunscreen and lip balm with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 30.4

Obesity and Poor Nutrition – Excess body weight increases risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancer. And, several studies suggest diets low in fruits and vegetables may be linked to an increased risk of cancers of the oral cavity.3

Maintain a healthy weight and eating pattern - the American Cancer Society recommends eating a healthy diet, with an emphasis on foods from plant sources, whole grains and limiting or avoiding red and processed meats, sugary or highly processed foods.4

Human Papilloma Virus(HPV) – HPV is a grouping of 150 different viruses, several which can infect the mouth and throat.3 HPV type 16 is most often linked to oral cancer; often at the base of the tongue, at the back of the throat, in the tonsils, or in the soft palate. HPV DNA is found in 2 out of every 3 oropharnygeal cancers.

Avoid HPV infection – HPV risk of infection of the mouth and throat is increased in those who have oral sex and multiple sex partners.4 Although HPV is common and linked to oral cancers, most people with HPV infections of the mouth and throat do not develop this cancer.4 HPV vaccines 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.4

There is no routine screening test or program for oral cancer or oropharyngeal cancer. But many pre-cancer areas and these cancers can be found early during routine dental visits.5 

This is another reason why it’s important that you visit your dentist regularly for a routine dental checkup. An oral cancer screening should be a part of a full dental exam.5 Your dentist will check your mouth and throat for red or white patches, lumps, swelling, or other problems. 

Any sore, discoloration, bumps in tissue, irritation, hoarseness, complaints of difficulty in swallowing or earaches, which do not resolve within two weeks should be considered suspect and worthy of further examination or referral.6 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.6 The only way to diagnose oral cancer is through biopsy.6

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 American Cancer Society, “About Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer”,, accessed 09/10/2022.

2 American Cancer Society, “Signs and Symptoms of Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer”,, accessed 09/10/2022.

3 American Cancer Society, “Risk Factors for Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers”, Accessed 09/10/2022.

4 American Cancer Society, “Can Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers Be Prevented?“, prevention.html, accessed 09/10/2022.

5American Cancer Society, “Can Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers Be Found Early?”,, accessed 09/10/2022.

6 The Oral Cancer Foundation, “The Role of Dental and Medical Professionals,”, accessed 09/10/2022.