Oral cancer can develop in people of any age. Learn some of the early signs to look out for and how to get a screening.
Oral cancer (sometimes called mouth cancer) is one of several types of cancer in a category called head and neck cancer. Head and neck cancers are estimated to affect thousands of people in Australia and New Zealand.1,2
It’s not always possible to catch warning signs of oral cancer on your own, which is why regular check-ups (both dental and medical) are important. For example, research suggests that never or rarely visiting the dentist may be associated with diagnoses of higher stages of oral cancer.3
Dentists can help detect signs of oral cancer by performing an oral cancer screening as part of a general check-up – you would need to discuss this with your dentist before your check-up begins.
Types of oral cancer
Oral cancer can develop in the soft tissues inside and around the mouth, including the lips, tongue, cheeks and gums, and the roof and floor of the mouth. They can also develop within the jaw bones.
Oral cancer risk factors
Oral cancer tends to be more common in people over the age of 40 and in men.1,4
Also, your lifestyle, family history and medical circumstances can play a role in determining whether you could be at a higher risk of head and neck cancers, including oral cancer.4 Factors that might affect your risk include:
- smoking or chewing tobacco
- excessive alcohol consumption
- sun exposure
- unhealthy diet
- physical inactivity
- a family history of head and neck cancers
- poor oral hygiene and gum disease
- chewing betel nuts (the seed of the areca palm tree)
- exposure to environmental or work-related irritants and chemicals
- infection with certain viruses (e.g. human papillomavirus)
- a weakened immune system.
Oral cancer screenings
You can get an oral cancer screening from a dentist or a doctor.
Many dental clinics offer oral cancer screening as part of a general check-up, especially if the dentist thinks you may be at a higher risk because of medical or lifestyle factors.
Screenings usually happen during your dental exam and the dentist will check your mouth for any swelling, sores, bumps or other abnormalities. They may use tools like mirrors, special lights or rinses to help them check as much of your mouth as possible, including the back of the throat.
It’s important to note that these screenings aren’t diagnostic — that means dental professionals can help find irregularities or areas of concern, but you’ll need to see a doctor or specialist for a diagnosis. If a screening indicates that oral cancer may be present, your dentist will likely refer you to a specialist for further tests.
What are some of the early signs of oral cancer?
You’ll need a qualified healthcare professional to make a diagnosis, but you can be on the look out for signs like:
- a lump, red or white patch or sore area inside or around your mouth
- a mouth ulcer or swelling that doesn't go away
- bleeding from your mouth
- a numb feeling in any part of your mouth
- a sore throat or trouble swallowing
- changes to your taste or speech
- teeth feeling loose.
There can be other reasons for these symptoms, and oral cancer doesn't always have obvious symptoms. It's important to see a doctor or dentist if you notice any sudden changes so they can check for oral cancer or other problems.
How to help lower your risk of oral cancer
Oral cancers can't always be prevented even if you have a healthy lifestyle, but some of the things you can do to help lower your risk include:4,5
- quitting smoking
- not drinking heavily
- protecting your face and lips from UV rays
- following a healthy, balanced diet
- improving your oral hygiene
- having regular check-ups with your doctor and dentist.
If you would like more information about ways to help reduce the risk of oral cancer, it’s best to speak with a doctor or dentist.
Questions? Speak with a professional
If you have oral health questions or would like to discuss an oral cancer screening, a dentist may be able to help. Find a dental clinic near you.
1 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Cancer in Australia [Online] 2019 [Accessed Aug 2019] Available from: www.aihw.gov.au
2 Yakin M Gavidi RO Cox B et al. Oral cancer risk factors in New Zealand. N Z Med J. 2017; 130(1451): 30–38.
3 Langevin SM Michaud DS Eliot M et al. Regular dental visits are associated with earlier stage at diagnosis for oral and pharyngeal cancer. Cancer Causes Control. 2012; 23(11): 1821–1829.
4 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Head and neck cancers in Australia. [Online] 2014 [Accessed Aug 2019] Available from: www.aihw.gov.au
5 Mayo Clinic. Mouth cancer [Online; last updated Jan 2019, accessed Aug 2019] Available from: www.mayoclinic.org
The purpose of this article is to promote better understanding of dental health topics. It’s not meant to replace professional advice or diagnosis. Always talk to a dentist, doctor or other qualified healthcare professional if you have a question about dental or medical conditions.