Oral Cancer: What Every Dental Patient Needs to Know

red oral cancer word cloud

Oral cancer is a term that might sound intimidating, but with the right knowledge and preventive measures, you can protect yourself and your loved ones. As dental patients, it’s essential to be informed about oral cancer, its signs, risk factors, and the importance of regular dental check-ups. Here’s a comprehensive guide to help you understand oral cancer better.

What is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer refers to cancers that develop in the tissues of the mouth or throat. It can appear as a sore or growth that doesn’t go away and can be life-threatening if not diagnosed and treated early. Oral cancer can affect various structures such as: 

  • Lips
  • Tongue
  • Gums
  • Floor of mouth
  • Inside of the cheeks
  • Hard and soft palates
  • Oropharynx 
  • Tonsils
  • Salivary glands

Common Signs and Symptoms

While symptoms may vary, common signs of oral cancer include:

  • White or red patches inside the mouth or on the lips.
  • Sores in the mouth that don’t heal within two weeks.
  • Unexplained pain or bleeding in the mouth.
  • Difficulty or discomfort in swallowing.
  • Lumps or thickening of the skin or lining of the mouth.
  • Chronic sore throat or a feeling that something is caught in the throat.

Risk Factors & Prevention

Several factors can increase the risk of oral cancer, including:

  • Tobacco Use: This is the top risk factor for oral cancer. Whether you smoke cigarettes, cigars, or use smokeless tobacco, you are at increased risk.
  • Alcohol Consumption: Heavy alcohol use can increase the risk of oral cancer.
  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV): Certain HPV strains are linked to oral cancers.
  • Sun Exposure: Excessive sun exposure can increase the risk of cancer of the lips.
  • Diet: A diet low in fruits and vegetables may play a role in oral cancer development.

Preventing oral cancer involves addressing its known risk factors and adopting a proactive approach to overall oral and general health. Here are some key strategies to help reduce the risk of developing oral cancer:

Avoid Tobacco Products: 

Tobacco use, whether smoking or chewing, is the most significant risk factor for oral cancer. Quitting tobacco, regardless of how long you’ve used it, can significantly reduce your risk.

Limit Alcohol Consumption: 

Heavy and prolonged alcohol use can increase the risk of oral cancer. If you choose to drink, do so in moderation. Combining tobacco and alcohol use poses an even greater risk.

Eat a Balanced Diet: 

Consuming a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help lower the risk of oral cancer. Antioxidants found in these foods can help protect cells from damage that can lead to cancer.

Protect Yourself from HPV: 

Some oral cancers are linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV). Practicing safe sex and limiting the number of sexual partners can reduce the risk of HPV. Additionally, consider getting vaccinated against HPV, which can protect against the most dangerous strains of the virus.

Limit Sun Exposure: 

To prevent lip cancers, limit your exposure to direct sunlight. Use a lip balm with sun protection factor (SPF) and wear a wide-brimmed hat when outdoors for extended periods.

Regular Dental Check-ups: 

Regular visits to the dentist can help detect oral cancer early. Your dentist can provide an oral cancer screening during routine check-ups and advise on any concerning findings.


Regularly check your mouth for any unusual changes, such as sores, lumps, or discolorations. If you notice anything unusual that doesn’t go away after two weeks, consult a healthcare professional.

Maintain Good Oral Hygiene: 

Regular brushing, flossing, and using an antiseptic mouthwash can help maintain a healthy oral environment, potentially reducing the risk of oral cancer.

Limit Exposure to Environmental Toxins: 

If you work in an environment with exposure to certain chemicals or irritants, ensure you have proper protective measures in place.

While no cancer can be prevented with absolute certainty, taking these proactive steps can significantly reduce the risk of developing oral cancer. Being informed and making conscious lifestyle choices are crucial components of prevention.

The Importance of Regular Dental Check-ups

Regular dental check-ups are crucial in the early detection of oral cancer. Your dentist can conduct an oral cancer screening during your routine dental examination. Here’s how the oral cancer screening process typically unfolds during a dental exam:

Visual Examination:

  • The dentist starts by examining the face, neck, and lips to check for any asymmetry, discoloration, or abnormal swelling.
  • Using tools like a mirror and light, the dentist will then inspect the inside of your mouth, checking the roof and floor of the mouth, back of the throat, tongue, cheeks, and gums for any signs of oral cancer such as white or red patches, sores, or lumps.
  • The dentist may also look for signs of HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer by checking the back of your throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils.

Physical Examination:

dental mirror in patient's mouth
  • The dentist will palpate, or feel, the jaw and neck to detect any unusual lumps or nodules.
  • They will also check for any immobility or pain in the tongue and might ask you to swallow during the examination to check for any difficulty or discomfort.

Use of Special Devices: 

Some dentists might use special tools or dyes to aid in the examination:

  • Toluidine blue dye: Areas stained by the dye appear to be more likely to be cancerous or precancerous.
  • Fluorescence staining: After rinsing the mouth with a special fluorescent rinse, a light can be used to differentiate between normal and abnormal tissues.
  • Brush biopsy: This involves collecting cells from a suspicious area by brushing them onto a slide for further analysis.

Discussion of Findings: 

After the examination, the dentist will discuss any findings with you. If any suspicious areas are identified, the dentist might recommend a biopsy or refer you to a specialist for further evaluation.

Risk Factor Assessment: 

The dentist may discuss potential risk factors for oral cancer, such as tobacco or alcohol use, and provide guidance on reducing these risks.


If any areas of concern are identified, the dentist will recommend a follow-up visit to monitor any changes or to perform additional tests.

It’s important to note that while an oral cancer screening is a vital preventive measure, it does not definitively diagnose cancer. If any suspicious areas are found, further diagnostic tests are required. Regular dental check-ups and screenings are essential for early detection, as early diagnosis significantly improves the chances of successful treatment.

In Conclusion

Oral cancer is a serious condition, but with awareness and proactive measures, it can be detected early and treated effectively. Regular dental check-ups play a pivotal role in early detection. Stay informed, maintain a healthy lifestyle, and ensure you visit your dentist regularly. Your mouth is the gateway to your overall health, so give it the care and attention it deserves.

Dr. Sisko

Dr. Gerald Sisko graduated from Ohio State University College of Dentistry in 1987. He is an active member of the American Dental Association, the Ohio Dental Association, and the Akron Dental Society where he is currently holding a council position. He has had the honor and distinction of being awarded “TOP DENTIST” in Akron and Cleveland as well as Northeast Ohio for the last several consecutive years.


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