Oral & Vision Health Blog

Symptoms of Oral Cancer: What to Know

Your dentist is an important member of your healthcare team! Dentists are often the front-line professionals to screen for and detect oral cancer. During a routine checkup, dentists can perform a quick evaluation for early signs of malignancy.

Oral cancers make up about three percent of all cancers in the United States. According to the National Institutes of Health, over 49,700 people are diagnosed with mouth cancer each year. Sadly, almost 8,000 people will die of the disease. Early diagnosis is critical with oral cancer. When detected in the early stages--while still localized--the five-year survival rate is 75 percent. Once the cancer has spread, the survival rate drops to 20 percent.

Once you're comfortably seated in the chair, your dental examination will include a visual screening for two abnormal lesions, or patches, which may indicate the potential for mouth cancer:

  • Leukoplakia (white lesions)
  • Erythroplakia (red lesions) Erythroplakia lesions are more likely to evolve into oral cancer. However, if either type does not resolve after two weeks, a biopsy should be considered. The examination is easily performed with just a small gauze pad to gently move your tongue aside while the dentist checks your mouth with a bright light. The procedure is standard, and recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.

Along with regular dental exams, you should be aware of other signs and symptoms of oral cancer. The Mayo Clinic lists the following:

  • A sore that doesn't heal
  • A lump or thickening of the skin or lining of your mouth
  • A white or reddish patch on the inside of your mouth
  • Loose teeth
  • Poorly fitting dentures
  • Tongue pain
  • Jaw pain or stiffness
  • Difficult or painful chewing
  • Difficult or painful swallowing
  • Sore throat
  • Feeling that something is caught in your throat

If you experience any of these signs or symptoms for more than two weeks, call your doctor or dentist. The cause can be something simple, such as an infection, but it's important to get a medical evaluation. 

Your dentist may also ask you some questions about your medical and social history. People who are at risk for oral cancer may have a history of:

  • Tobacco and alcohol use. Tobacco includes cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and smokeless tobacco. Heavy alcohol use increases the chance of oral and throat cancer. People who use both tobacco and alcohol are at the highest risk.
  • Sun exposure. Cancer of the lip can occur with too much sun.
  • Diet. Eating fruits and vegetables seems to provide some protection against oral cancer.
  • Age. As with many other cancers, the risk increases over age 40. 

Oral cancer can be serious. With routine examinations, your dentist serves as the first medical expert in keeping you--and your mouth--healthy. 

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