oral cancer
Performing self-examinations of your mouth, tongue, and cheeks is one of the best ways to routinely detect oral cancer.

One of the best ways to routinely detect mouth cancer at home is to examine your:

  • Tongue
  • Inside of your cheeks
  • Floor of your mouth
  • Lips
  • Roof of your mouth
  • Gums

Oral cancer, also known as mouth cancer, is a type of cancer that develops in the tissues of the mouth or throat and is part of a larger group of cancer known as head and neck cancer. It primarily develops in the squamous cells found in the lips, mouth, and tongue.

Oral cancer is frequently discovered after it has spread to the lymph nodes in the neck.

6 early signs and symptoms of oral cancer

It is critical to recognize the 6 early warning signs of oral cancer:

  1. Unhealed sores in and around your mouth
  2. A numb whitish patch over your tongue or oral cavity
  3. Difficulty eating or swallowing, as well as jaw swelling or a lump in your throat
  4. Mouth pain
  5. Numbness of the tongue
  6. Lump in the neck

During your routine examination, you may need to:

  • Look for red, white, or dark patches in and around the tongue.
  • Feel around for any protrusions or raised areas.
  • Lift your tongue to the roof of your mouth and then move it left and right to look beneath for any signs of discomfort.
  • Manually examine your cheeks by gently squeezing them between your thumb and index finger; this is one of the best ways to detect any lumps, bumps, or slight swelling.
  • Inspect your neck area by running your fingers gently along the side of your neck, feeling for any lumps or bumps that are out of the ordinary. Take note of any minor tenderness or swelling.

Because oral cancer is usually painless, don't expect any sharp pain.

The first sign of oral cancer is usually a small sore, which is of three types:

  1. Leukoplakia (white sores)
  2. Erythroplakia (red sores)
  3. Erythroleukoplakia (combination white and red sores) on the lips, gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth

Over time, these typically progress to the following:

  • a lump or thickening of the lips or gums,
  • bleeding,
  • pain,
  • numbness in the lips or mouth,
  • a change in voice,
  • loose teeth,
  • difficulty chewing, swallowing, or speaking,
  • swelling of the jaw, and
  • a sore throat.

Consult your dentist or doctor as soon as you notice any of the symptoms listed above.

How is oral cancer diagnosed?

Your dentist or doctor may use the following to diagnose oral cancer:

Oral cancer screening

Because there is no standard screening test, a cancer workup will begin with a personal medical history, followed by a complete head and neck exam, which will include looking for and feeling for any abnormalities inside your mouth with gloved fingers.

The doctor will look for lesions (areas of abnormal tissue), such as white or red patches of cells that could turn cancerous.

The following methods may be used:

  • Toluidine blue stain: Lesions in the mouth are coated with a blue dye and examined for areas that stain darker, indicating that they are more likely to be or become cancerous.
  • Fluorescence staining: After administering fluorescent mouth rinse, lesions in the mouth are examined with a special light that reveals abnormal tissue.
  • Exfoliative cytology: Cells from a suspicious area is gently scraped from the lips, tongue, or mouth with a piece of cotton or wooden stick and then examined under a microscope for abnormalities.


This is the gold standard to determine a cancer diagnosis. It entails taking a sample of tissue or cells and inspecting it under a microscope. Depending on where the tumor is located, different methods may be used.

You may be subjected to imaging tests to learn more about the tumor, its location, and any regional spread to the lymph nodes or jawbone, such as:

Oral cancer continues to be a major public health concern, regardless of age, race, or socioeconomic status.

Early detection of oral cancer is still critical to improving a person’s survival rates. This can only be accomplished through a thorough clinical examination of the face, mouth, and neck at regular intervals, as well as an understanding of the common signs and symptoms of cancer.

Dental hygienists play a unique role in early cancer detection because they routinely perform such examinations and educate people on self-examination and risk factor management.


Skin Cancer Symptoms, Types, Images See Slideshow

What are risk factors for mouth cancer?

Men have two times higher lifetime risk of oral cancer than women. Men older than 50 years are at the highest risk of oral cancer. 

The following are some of the most common risk factors for mouth cancer:

  • People who smoke are six times more likely to develop oral cancer than those who do not smoke. As a result, cigarettes and cigars are the leading causes of mouth cancer.
  • Alcohol users are six times more likely than non-drinkers to develop mouth cancer.
  • Tobacco, snuff, or dip users are 50 times more likely to develop mouth cancer such as cheek cancer, gum cancer, and cancer of the lips’ lining.
  • One of the most common risk factors is excessive sun exposure.
  • Human papillomavirus strains are associated with an increased risk of oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma.
  • Occupational exposures, poor oral hygiene, malnutrition, radiation exposure, Epstein-Barr virus infection, and a family history of cancer are all risk factors.

Oral cancer is fairly common and is treatable when found in its initial stages. A doctor or dentist can usually detect oral cancer during a routine mouth exam.

Because the majority of people who develop oral cancer are smokers or tobacco users, avoiding smoking and tobacco can help significantly reduce your risk.

What are the treatment options for mouth cancer?

Treatment of mouth cancer is critical in the early stages. The earlier it is diagnosed and treated, the better the chances of survival after the treatment.

Oral cancer is classified into four stages:

  1. Stage I: Tumor has not spread to the lymph nodes and is less than or equal to two centimeters in size
  2. Stage II: Tumor grows between two and four centimeters and has spread to the lymph nodes
  3. Stage III: Tumor spreads to one of the lymph nodes and grows to be larger than four centimeters in size
  4. Stage IV: Tumor grows and spreads to the lymph nodes and other surrounding organs

Oral cancer treatment is provided based on the location, stage, and type of cancer, but may include:

  • Surgery: In the early stages of mouth cancer, doctors prefer surgery to remove the tumor so that it does not spread to other parts of the body.
  • Chemotherapy: To kill cancer cells, chemotherapy drugs are administered orally or intravenously.
  • Radiation therapy: For two to eight weeks, radiation beams are focused on the tumor one or two times a day.

At advanced stages of cancer, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are used.

  • Targeted therapy: Drugs are used in this therapy to bind to cancer cells’ specific proteins and obstruct their growth.

People with untreated mouth cancer have a very low survival rate. Furthermore, the survival rate is affected by factors such as cancer stage, cancer location, and person’s age.

For people with early-stage untreated mouth cancer, the five-year survival rate is about 30 percent, whereas, for people with stage IV untreated mouth cancer, the rate drops to 12 percent.

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Medically Reviewed on 1/6/2022
Image Source: iStock Images

Oral and Oropharyngeal Cancer: Diagnosis: https://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/oral-and-oropharyngeal-cancer/diagnosis

Can Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers Be Found Early? https://www.cancer.org/cancer/oral-cavity-and-oropharyngeal-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/detection.html

Oral Cancer: https://www.nidcr.nih.gov/health-info/oral-cancer

Early Detection, Diagnosis and Staging: https://oralcancerfoundation.org/cdc/early-detection-diagnosis-staging/

Detecting oral cancer early: https://www.mouthhealthy.org/~/media/ADA/Publications/Files/Dental_Patient_0510.ashx