What Does Mouth Cancer Look Like?

Medically Reviewed on 6/21/2022
How Does Mouth Cancer Look Like?
Treatment for oral cancer depends on the location and stage of cancer and the overall health of the individual.

Oral cancer starts in the squamous cells of the oral cavity when their DNA changes and cells begin to grow and multiply uncontrollably. Over time, these cancerous cells can spread to other areas inside the mouth, head, and neck.

Though oral cancer may appear differently based on its stage, location in the mouth, and other factors, some of the characteristics of mouth cancer include:

  • Raised or flat, red, white, or brown patches
  • Can grow anywhere in the mouth but typically affects the tongue, lips, throat, or cheeks
  • People older than 50 years are the most affected but can occur in the younger age group too
  • People who consume tobacco or alcohol are more vulnerable to developing mouth cancer
  • Painful rough patches do not heal within several weeks
  • Unexplained, persistent lumps in the mouth or the neck that do not go away without treatment
  • Open, oozing sores in the mouth that may or may not be painful
  • Hard, painless lump near the back teeth or in the cheek
  • Left untreated, oral cancer can spread throughout the mouth, throat, head, and neck
  • Causes problems with speaking, chewing, or swallowing

What parts of the mouth does oral cancer affect?

Mouth cancer or oral cancer is the most common form of head and neck cancer that typically affects the:

  • Lips
  • Tongue
  • Gums
  • The inner lining of the cheeks

The oropharynx includes the last part of the tongue, roof of the mouth, tonsils, and sides and back of the throat.

14 most common symptoms of oral cancer

  1. Lumps or bumps, rough spots, crusts, or eroded areas on the lips, gums, cheek, or other areas inside the mouth
  2. Velvety white, red, or speckled (white and red) patches in the mouth
  3. Unexplained bleeding in the mouth
  4. Numbness and loss of taste sensation
  5. Pain and tenderness in any area of the face, mouth, or neck
  6. Persistent sores on the face, neck, or mouth that bleed easily and do not heal within two weeks
  7. Loose teeth
  8. A sore feeling or an uncomfortable feeling at the back of the throat
  9. Difficulty chewing or swallowing, speaking, or moving the jaw or tongue
  10. Hoarseness, chronic sore throat, or change in voice
  11. Ear pain
  12. Swelling or pain in the jaw
  13. Difficulty wearing or poorly fitted dentures
  14. Unintentional weight loss

8 risk factors for developing oral cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, men have two times higher risk of developing oral cancer than women.

  1. Aged older than 50 years
  2. A family history of oral cancer
  3. Smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes
  4. Use of smokeless tobacco products, such as chewing tobacco, dip, snuff, or water pipes (hookah or shush)
  5. Regular and excessive amounts of alcohol consumption
  6. Excessive sun exposure, especially at a young age without lip protection with sunblock
  7. A weakened immune system is seen in patients with diabetes, transplants, or human immunodeficiency virus or those receiving chemotherapy
  8. Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection


Skin Cancer Symptoms, Types, Images See Slideshow

How is oral cancer diagnosed?

The doctor (a dentist or an ear, nose, and throat specialist) may spot potential oral cancer during regular checkups.

They may follow up with preliminary tests, medical, or family history, and current symptomatology to rule out oral cancer.

To confirm a diagnosis of oral cancer, the following tests are done:

  • Physical examination: The healthcare provider will see the inside of the mouth along with the examination of the head, face, and neck for potential signs of precancer or cancer.
  • Brush biopsy, scrape biopsy, or exfoliative cytology: A small brush or spatula is used to gently scrape the area in question to obtain cells examined for cancer.
  • Incisional biopsy: Small pieces of tissue are removed to be examined under the microscope for cancerous changes.
  • Indirect laryngoscopy and pharyngoscopy: A small mirror on a long thin handle is used to look at the throat, the base of the tongue, and part of the larynx.
  • Direct or flexible pharyngoscopy and laryngoscopy: An endoscope (a thin, flexible tube with an attached light and viewing lens) is used to look at the areas of the throat and mouth that cannot be seen using mirrors.

How is oral cancer treated?

Treatment for oral cancer depends on the location and stage of cancer and the overall health of the individual.

Treatment may range from a single type to a combination of cancer treatments, including surgery, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, chemotherapy, and targeted drug therapy.

Lifestyle changes may include:

  • Quit tobacco
  • Quit alcohol
  • Moderate exercise
  • A nutritional diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables

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Medically Reviewed on 6/21/2022
Image Source: iStock image

Cleveland Clinic. Oral Cancer. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/11184-oral-cancer

WebMD. Oral Cancer: Risks, Symptoms, and Prevention. https://www.webmd.com/oral-health/guide/oral-cancer

Mayo Clinic. Mouth Cancer. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mouth-cancer/symptoms-causes/syc-20350997