What Is Oral Cancer?

When you see your dentist for a regular check-up, they’re not just examining your teeth — they’re also checking for oral cancer. But what is oral cancer? And what are some of the signs you should look for? 

Our experienced dentists explain how they diagnose and treat oral cancer here.

What Is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer, also known as oral cavity cancer, occurs in all parts of the mouth, as well as the throat and esophagus. This type of cancer is common, though it’s curable if found and treated early on. Mouth cancer is typically grouped in the same category as head and neck cancers because they’re treated similarly. 

What Does Oral Cancer Look Like?

Oral cancer presents in a few different ways, but the most common is discoloration inside the mouth. For instance, while your tongue turns slightly different colors depending on what you eat or drink, you should mention any persistent patches to your dentist.  

Other, more subtle signs of oral cancer can include:

  • Lip or mouth sores that bleed easily or don’t heal

  • White or red patches in the mouth

  • Lumps in the mouth or tongue 

  • Loose teeth

  • Difficulty swallowing

  • Mouth pain

  • Ear pain

What Causes Oral Cancer?

While the exact cause of oral cancer isn’t clear, there are certain risk factors to avoid. 

Mouth cancer is most common in people over age 40 and affects twice as many men as women. Also, while mostly seen in adults, it can still affect children. Most cases of oral cancer are related to tobacco and alcohol use, though other causes of oral cavity cancer can include: 

  • Tobacco use (cigarettes, cigars, pipes, etc.)

  • Heavy alcohol use 

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)

  • Unprotected sun exposure

How Is Oral Cancer Treated?

The treatment for oral cancer is usually surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy. You may only need one of these treatments or a combination. Overall, the choice of treatment depends on the following factors: 

  • Where the mouth or throat cancer began

  • The size and type of tumor, if applicable 

  • Whether cancer has spread 

How Is Oral Cancer Diagnosed? 

At your regular check-up, your dentist will examine your mouth for abnormalities, like white patches and persistent sores. If they find anything, they’ll use a scalpel or laser to take cell samples from the area. Then, it’s tested at a lab to determine whether or not it’s cancerous. 

If the lesion is malignant, your dentist will likely work with an oral surgeon or oncologist to have it removed as soon as possible. Some patients also undergo radiation and chemotherapy. 

How to Prevent Oral Cancer 

While there’s no way to prevent oral cancer, you can reduce your risk by doing the following: 

  • See your dentist twice a year

  • Steer clear of tobacco products

  • Drink alcohol in moderation

  • Limit your sun exposure

Early detection is crucial for all types of head and neck cancers. While dentists screen for oral cancer at your regular check-ups, report anything concerning in the meantime. At the very least, have your dentist check annually for precancers, cancerous lesions, and other oral abnormalities.

Contact Our Dental Office in Omaha, NE

Don’t wait for troubling symptoms to appear. For most patients, we recommend seeing our dentists at least twice a year. However, those with risk factors for conditions such as periodontal disease and oral cancer should visit us more often. 

Call 402-498-8804 or contact our office in West Omaha, NE to schedule an appointment. 

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