Signs and symptoms of mouth cancer may include:
- A sore that doesn't heal
- A lump or thickening of the skin or lining of your mouth
- A white or reddish patch on the inside of your mouth
- Loose teeth
- Poorly fitting dentures
- Tongue pain
- Jaw pain or stiffness
- Difficult or painful chewing
- Difficult or painful swallowing
- Sore throat
- Feeling that something is caught in your throat
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with your doctor or dentist if you have any persistent signs and symptoms that bother you and last more than two weeks. Your doctor will likely investigate other more common causes for your signs and symptoms first, such as an infection.
Mouth cancer occurs when cells on your lips or in your mouth develop changes (mutations) in their DNA. These mutations allow cancer cells to grow and divide when healthy cells would die. The accumulating mouth cancer cells can form a tumor. With time they may spread to other areas of the mouth and on to other areas of the head and neck or other parts of the body.
Mouth cancers most commonly begin in the flat, thin cells (squamous cells) that line your lips and the inside of your mouth. Most oral cancers are squamous cell carcinomas.
It's not clear what causes the mutations in squamous cells that lead to mouth cancer. But doctors have identified factors that may increase the risk of mouth cancer.
Types of mouth cancer
Mouth cancer is a general term that applies to cancers that occur on the lips and throughout the mouth. More-specific terms for these types of cancer include:
- Cancer that affects in the inside portion of the cheeks (buccal mucosa cancer)
- Floor of mouth cancer
- Gum cancer
- Lip cancer
- Roof of mouth (hard palate) cancer
- Salivary gland cancer
- Tongue cancer
Factors that can increase your risk of mouth cancer include:
- Tobacco use of any kind, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco and snuff, among others
- Heavy alcohol use
- Excessive sun exposure to your lips
- A sexually transmitted virus called human papillomavirus (HPV)
There's no proven way to prevent mouth cancer. However, you can reduce your risk of mouth cancer if you:
- Stop using tobacco or don't start. If you use tobacco, stop. If you don't use tobacco, don't start. Using tobacco, whether smoked or chewed, exposes the cells in your mouth to dangerous cancer-causing chemicals.
- Drink alcohol only in moderation, if at all. Chronic excessive alcohol use can irritate the cells in your mouth, making them vulnerable to mouth cancer. If you choose to drink alcohol, limit yourself to one drink a day if you're a woman or two drinks a day if you're a man.
- Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. Choose a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. The vitamins and antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables may help reduce your risk of mouth cancer.
- Avoid excessive sun exposure to your lips. Protect the skin on your lips from the sun by staying in the shade when possible. Wear a broad-brimmed hat that effectively shades your entire face, including your mouth. Apply a sunscreen lip product as part of your routine sun protection regimen.
- See your dentist regularly. As part of a routine dental exam, ask your dentist to inspect your entire mouth for abnormal areas that may indicate mouth cancer or precancerous changes.