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:
- 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
- Lumps or bumps, rough spots, crusts, or eroded areas on the lips, gums, cheek, or other areas inside the mouth
- Velvety white, red, or speckled (white and red) patches in the mouth
- Unexplained bleeding in the mouth
- Numbness and loss of taste sensation
- Pain and tenderness in any area of the face, mouth, or neck
- Persistent sores on the face, neck, or mouth that bleed easily and do not heal within two weeks
- Loose teeth
- A sore feeling or an uncomfortable feeling at the back of the throat
- Difficulty chewing or swallowing, speaking, or moving the jaw or tongue
- Hoarseness, chronic sore throat, or change in voice
- Ear pain
- Swelling or pain in the jaw
- Difficulty wearing or poorly fitted dentures
- 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.
- Aged older than 50 years
- A family history of oral cancer
- Smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes
- Use of smokeless tobacco products, such as chewing tobacco, dip, snuff, or water pipes (hookah or shush)
- Regular and excessive amounts of alcohol consumption
- Excessive sun exposure, especially at a young age without lip protection with sunblock
- A weakened immune system is seen in patients with diabetes, transplants, or human immunodeficiency virus or those receiving chemotherapy
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
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:
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
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
Top How Does Mouth Cancer Look Like Related Articles
CancerCancer is a disease caused by an abnormal growth of cells, also called malignancy. It is a group of 100 different diseases, and is not contagious. Cancer can be treated through chemotherapy, a treatment of drugs that destroy cancer cells.
Cancer 101 SlideshowLearn the basics about cancer including types, causes, how it spreads, symptoms and signs, stages and treatment options. Read about the common type of cancers.
Top Cancer-Fighting FoodsExperts have praised certain foods for their ability to reduce cancer risks. Learn which foods and eating strategies may help reduce your risk of developing cancer.
Cancer QuizTake this quiz to learn the causes of cancer. Get the facts about the causes, symptoms, and treatments for the world's most common cancers.
Cancer: Does This Cause Cancer?Everything gives you cancer, right? Not really. WebMD's slide show tells you about the research into cancer and cell phones, X-rays, plastic bottles, coffee, and more.
Which Drug Is Used As a Targeted Therapy for Head and Neck Cancer?Erbitux (cetuximab), Keytruda (pembrolizumab), and Opdivo (nivolumab) are targeted molecules used for the treatment of locally or regionally advanced head and neck squamous cell carcinoma.
Head and Neck Cancer QuizLearn the facts about head and neck cancers.
How Do You Detect Oral Cancer?Performing self-examinations of your mouth, tongue, and cheeks is one of the best ways to routinely detect oral cancer.
How do you screen for oral cancer?Oral cancer develops in the lip, tongue, floor of the mouth, palate, gums, inner lining of the mouth, and throat. It accounts for 2-4% of the cancers diagnosed annually in the United States.
Is Nasopharyngeal Cancer Head and Neck Cancer?Nasopharyngeal cancer (NPC) is considered head and neck cancer and originates in the nasopharynx, which is the upper part of the throat behind the nose and near the skull base.
Is Oral Cancer Part of Head and Neck Cancer?Oral cancers are a type of head and neck cancer that can occur in the mouth or throat.
Is Throat Cancer a Head and Neck Cancer?Throat cancer is a type of head and neck cancer and is diagnosed if cancer cells are identified in one or more of these sections of the throat. Throat cancer is classified as pharyngeal or laryngeal cancer depending on which region of the throat is afflicted.
The Early Stages of Mouth CancerMouth cancer is also referred to as oral cancer. It is one of the cancers occurring in the head and neck region. It can arise from any part of the oral cavity, such as the lips, tongue, gums (gingiva), palate, the floor of the mouth, and the inner lining of the cheeks (buccal mucosa). Mouth cancers are locally invasive; it spreads to other parts of the head and neck, and eventually, the rest of the body.
What Are the Top 11 Cancer-Fighting Foods?Foods that fight cancer include phytochemicals, berries, turmeric, onions, and more. Learn how you can lower your risk of developing cancer through your diet.
What Is the Most Common Head and Neck Cancer?Cancer in the head and neck region may affect your mouth (oral cavity), tongue, parts of the throat (pharynx), nose or nasal sinuses, salivary glands, gums, tonsils, voice-box (larynx) and middle ear. Globally, approximately 550,000 people are diagnosed with head and neck cancer (HNC) every year.
What Is the Survival Rate of Salivary Gland Cancer?The survival rate of salivary gland cancer depends on several factors. The overall five-year survival rate for salivary gland cancer in the United States is 75 percent. The survival rate depends on the type and stage of the salivary gland cancer. The five-year survival rate for people with early-stage (localized) salivary gland cancer is 94 percent. The five-year survival rate for people with salivary gland cancer that spreads to nearby structures and lymph nodes is 67 percent. The five-year survival rate for people with advanced-stage (metastatic) cancer is 44 percent.