Early Signs of Oral Cancer

Know the signs and protect your mouth.

You can get cancer anywhere in your body, including in your mouth and throat. But oral cancer can strike at any age–whether you use tobacco or not. It's smart to know the signs and learn how to prevent it.

Open Up and Say "Prevention"

Your dentist is your partner in the fight against oral cancer. They should check for oral cancer during your regular dental visits. Your dentist will look for suspicious spots and feel for lumps in and around your mouth. This may include the roof of your mouth, inside your cheeks, under your tongue, and other areas of your head and neck.

Head and neck cancers can start:

  • In the sinuses (the spaces around the nose on the inside of the skull)
  • Inside and behind the nose
  • In the mouth, including the tongue, the gums, and the roof of the mouth
  • In the back of the mouth and the throat (pharynx)
  • In the larynx (voice box)
  • On the lips, although cancer on the lips is a type of skin cancer
  • In the glands that make saliva (spit)

The most common oral cancer symptom is a flat, painless white or red spot, or a small sore. In many cases, having a spot or sore in your mouth is harmless. But it’s important to tell your dentist if you notice any so they can check it out.

Some dentists are using a new, simple technique to help detect cancerous or precancerous cells. The dentist uses a small brush to gather cell samples of a suspicious area. The samples are sent to a lab for analysis. This procedure is easy, nearly painless, and can be done in the dentist's chair. The results can help your dentist decide if you need more follow-up.1

Know How to Recognize Oral Cancer

Tell your dentist if you notice:2

  • A red or white patch
  • A sore that bleeds easily or doesn't heal
  • A thick or hard spot, or a lump
  • A roughened or crusted area
  • Numbness
  • Pain or tenderness
  • A change in the way your teeth fit together when you bite down
  • Problems chewing, swallowing, speaking, or moving your tongue or jaw
  • A feeling that something is caught in the throat
  • Pain in the throat that won’t go away
  • Pain or ringing in the ears or trouble hearing

Preventing high risk behaviors, such as cigarette, cigar, or pipe smoking; use of smokeless tobacco; and excessive use of alcohol are critical in preventing oral cancers. Oral Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted disease, can cause cancers in the back of the throat, called “oropharyngeal cancers.”

The bottom line? Routine preventive care can help catch and treat oral cancer. Get regular dental check-ups for cleanings and exams and see your dentist right away if you have any symptoms that worry you.

More Facts About Oral Cancer

  • More than 49,000 people in the United States are diagnosed each year3
  • Nearly 9,750 people in the United States die from oral cancer each year3
  • More than half of those diagnosed survive more than five years3
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1 Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/oral-cancer-screening/about/pac-20394802, accessed May 2021

2 Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mouth-cancer/symptoms-causes/syc-20350997, accessed May 2021

3 Oral Cancer Foundation, “Oral Cancer Facts.” http://www.oralcancerfoundation.org/facts/. Accessed May 2021

This information is for educational purposes only and is not medical advice. Always consult with your dentist for appropriate examinations, treatment, testing, and care recommendations.