April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, and it’s for good reason—approximately 53,000 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year.  Oral cancer accounts for three percent of all cancer diagnoses, affecting more men than women.  Early detection and treatment of oral cancer is key to can a positive outcome and preventing it from spreading to other areas of the body.

Where exactly in the mouth does oral cancer occur?

Oral cancer can occur anywhere in the mouth, this includes: the surface of the tongue, the lips, inside the cheek, in the gums, in the roof and floor of the mouth, and in the salivary glands.

What are the symptoms of oral cancer?

In the early stages, there are often no signs or symptoms, however, smokers and heavy drinkers should have regular checkups as they are at a higher risk.

Signs and symptoms include:

  • patches on the lining of the mouth or tongue, usually velvety red and white in color
  • mouth ulcers or sores that do not heal
  • pain when swallowing
  • unexplained bleeding in the mouth
  • loose teeth with no apparent reason
  • poorly fitting dentures
  • jaw pain or stiffness
  • a feeling something is stuck in the throat
  • painful tongue
  • pain in the neck or ear that does not go away

Risks factors for oral cancer

  1. Tobacco.  Most oral cancers are linked to tobacco use. The longer you the use of tobacco, the greater the risk. The risk also increases when smoking is combined with using smokeless tobacco and drinking alcohol.
  2. Alcohol.  Alcohol is one of the main risk factors for oral cancer. As with tobacco, the more you partake, the greater your risk.
  3. HPV. HPV, or Human papillomavirus, is a sexually transmitted infection with hundreds of various strains. A few have been identified with strong associations to oral cancer.
  4. Sun exposure.  Sun exposure increases the risk of developing lip cancer, especially for those with fair skin. Most lip cancers occur on the bottom lip, likely because it’s more exposed to the sun. Be sure to use a lip balm with SPF when you spend time outdoors.

If you have several of these symptoms of oral cancer, contact your dentist immediately.  Be sure to visit your dentist at least twice a year for your overall oral health and preventative care.