According to The Oral Cancer Foundation, almost 54,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with oral cancer in 2022. April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, and at Rhoades Family Dentistry, we want all of our patients to be informed about the early signs and risk factors of oral cancer. It’s important to have regular oral cancer screenings to know if you may be at risk.
Here are the most common oral cancer symptoms, causes, and risk factors to look out for so you and your family can stay in the know.
What Are the Symptoms of Oral Cancer?
Oral cancer includes any cancer that affects the mouth, gum tissue, and the throat area at the back of the mouth. It can also develop on, under, or at the base of the tongue. Between dental checkups, it’s important to check your mouth regularly for any early signs or symptoms of oral cancer.
If any of the following symptoms do not improve or disappear after two or three weeks, it’s best to address them immediately with your dentist. These symptoms include:
- Irritation or soreness in the mouth that doesn’t go away
- Any mouth ulceration or sore that doesn’t heal after two or three weeks
- Red or white patches on the mouth, throat, or lips
- Black discoloration of the mouth’s soft tissues
- Pain, tenderness, or numbness in the lips or mouth
- Thickening tissues, rough spots, lumps, crusty or eroded areas, and any abnormalities that bleed easily when touched
- A growth, lump, or hard spot of tissue, usually around the border of the tongue
- Difficulty moving your tongue or jaw, or difficulty speaking, chewing, or swallowing
- Sores or swelling under dentures that cause them to become uncomfortable and won’t heal
- Any change in how your teeth fit together when closing your jaw
- A painless, firm lump on the outside of the neck
- Ear pain
In addition, oropharyngeal cancer caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) can lead to additional symptoms that will persist longer than two or three weeks, such as:
- Sore throat, hoarseness, or persistent cough
- Painless, swollen tonsil, usually on just one side of the throat
- Difficulty swallowing, pain when swallowing, or the feeling of food getting stuck in your throat
- Swelling of the back of the mouth and tonsillar area
- One-sided (unilateral) earache that lasts longer than a few days
While many people can experience sores and irritation in the mouth at one time or another, a strong indicator of oral cancer is if these symptoms are persistent and do not resolve on their own after a few weeks. If this is the case, it’s best to visit your dentist as soon as possible in case these symptoms are early signs of oral or oropharyngeal cancer.
What Are Risk Factors for Oral Cancer?
Research has indicated that the two most common oral cancer causes are tobacco and alcohol use and HPV infection. However, other risk factors should be considered as well, especially since non-smokers, non-drinkers, and those without HPV can still be at risk for developing oral cancer.
Tobacco and Alcohol Use
Those who consistently use tobacco products or are heavy drinkers, especially those older than 50, have a higher risk of developing oral or oropharyngeal cancers than those who are younger and don’t consume these products. This includes tobacco of any kind, like chewing tobacco and smoking cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and excessive alcohol usage. The risk of oral cancer only increases when these substances are used together over time.
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Infection
HPV is a sexually transmitted disease that can increase the risk of developing oropharyngeal cancer, which involves lymphoid tissue at the base of the tongue or in the tonsils. According to the FDA, HPV infection consists of more than 100 different viruses, but the virus type most often linked to oral cancer is HPV16.
Because oral cancers can take many years to develop, the risk of developing the disease only increases with age. Those over 50 are at a higher risk of developing oral cancer, especially if they drink and smoke, whereas those younger than 50 are more likely to develop oral cancer as a result of HPV16.
Ultraviolet (UV) light, or sunlight, can cause certain cancers if exposure lasts for long periods of time. Oral cancer can develop on the lips, so people who work outdoor jobs and are exposed to the sun more than others are at a higher risk.
Oropharyngeal and oral cavity cancers are more likely to occur in males than females, in cases where cancer resulted from tobacco use, alcohol, or HPV.
Excess Body Weight and Low Nutrition
Being overweight or obese and having poor nutrition can put you at risk of many health problems, including oral cancers. It’s best to maintain a healthy diet with fruits and vegetables to lower your chances of cancer and other oral health problems.
How Is Oral Cancer Treated?
Oral cancer treatment options can vary depending on the type of oral cancer, the symptoms a person is experiencing, and treatment side effects. If oral cancer is detected early, it may be treated with radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and surgery. More advanced oral cancer stages may require a combination of the aforementioned options.
Like many other cancers, oral cancer is known to spread quickly. Because oral cancer is routinely discovered late rather than early in its development, the death rate of this disease remains relatively high. Individuals may also experience long-term problems as a result of oral cancer, including difficulties speaking and eating, and facial disfigurement.
If oral and oropharyngeal cancers can be detected early, however, side effects related to treatment and mortality risk are significantly reduced. That’s why it’s important to have regular dental checkups and examinations so your dentist can detect any early oral cancer stages.