Did you know that bad breath or a mouth sore can be early warning signs of oral cancer? Although in most cases, these signs can be due to less serious conditions, it is essential to understand the symptoms of mouth cancer for its early detection and prompt treatment.

Oral cancer accounts for roughly 3% of all cancers diagnosed annually in the U.S. An estimated 54,540 adults in the country will be diagnosed with oral or oropharyngeal cancer this year.

Screening for oral cancer helps in detecting the disease in the early stage when the treatment is easier and more effective. If diagnosed at an early stage, the 5-year relative survival rate for all people is 86%.

Early signs of oral cancer:

  • Painful mouth ulcers or sores that bleed easily and do not heal over several weeks
  • Unexplained numbness, pain or tenderness on the face, neck or inside the mouth
  • Difficulty chewing, swallowing or moving tongue
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Changes in speech
  • White or red patches on the lining of the mouth or tongue
  • Persistent lumps in the mouth or neck
  • Mouth pain or ear pain
  • Loose teeth or sockets that are difficult to heal after tooth extraction
  • Bad breath

Who is at risk?

1. Tobacco use: Studies have shown that 85% of head and neck cancer is associated with tobacco use. Chewing tobacco increases the risk of developing cancer in the cheeks, gums and inner surface of the lips to 50%. Some studies have shown that long-term exposure to secondhand smoke can also increase the risk of oral cancers.

Smoking during cancer treatment can cause issues with wound healing, risk of infections and more side effects from radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

2. Alcohol consumption: Drinking alcohol increases the chances of developing oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers. Around 70% of people diagnosed with oral cancer are heavy drinkers.

The risk of developing oral cancer in people who drink and smoke heavily is around 30 times higher than in people who don't smoke or drink.

3. Prolonged exposure to the sun: Exposure to the sun for long periods without any protection can increase the risk of developing cancer on the lips.

4. Human papillomavirus (HPV): HPV is a viral infection that causes skin or mucous membrane growths, also called warts. An infection with the HPV virus increases the risk of developing cancers at the back of the throat, the base of the tongue and the tonsils.

5. Oral hygiene: Poor oral hygiene and poorly fitting dentures can increase the chances of getting oral cancer.

6. Weakened immune system: People who have a weakened immune system are at high risk of developing oral cancer.

7. Poor diet: A diet low in fruits and vegetables can cause vitamin deficiencies. The deficiency of vitamin A may increase the risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancer.

8. Age, gender and skin color: Men are more likely to develop oral cancers and the risk increases after the age of 45. People with fair skin have a higher risk of developing lip cancer.

Tips to prevent oral cancer

Experts believe changing certain lifestyle habits can prevent the occurrence of oral cancers. This includes steps like:

  • Cutting back on tobacco
  • Limiting alcohol intake
  • Using sunscreen on the face and neck
  • Eating a well-balanced food
  • Having regular dental check-ups
  • Getting vaccinated for human papillomavirus
Many forms of oral cancer, such as cancer of the mouth or throat, can be sexually transmitted and caused by the STD human papillomavirus (HPV). Photo Courtesy of Pixabay