Visiting the dentist isn’t just about making sure you’re cavity-free and have the cleanest, whitest teeth you can. It’s also about ensuring that you have good oral health and detecting any oral health complications or diseases before they get out of control. One thing screened for during dentist appointments is oral cancer.
What is Oral Cancer?
Oral cancer is a disease that affects the pharynx and the mouth. According to the Oral Cancer foundation, roughly 54,000 new Americans are diagnosed with oral cancer annually, which is nearly 148 people per day, and one person dies from oral cancer every hour.
The most common kind of oral cancer is typically squamous cell carcinoma, which occurs when the squamous cells in the mouth feature abnormal mutations.
Squamous cell carcinoma is also the second-most common type of skin cancer, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, and while it often occurs in areas that get “frequent sun exposure,” it can present itself on lips or even in the mouth.
Other types of oral cancer include:
- Basal cell carcinoma
- Verrucous carcinoma
- Salivary gland carcinomas
- Odontogenic tumors, and more
Oral Cancer Symptoms
Early detection of oral cancer often saves lives, so it’s important to understand oral cancer symptoms and what to look for. If you’re experiencing any of the following oral cancer symptoms, be sure to keep an eye on them and consult your dentist immediately if you suspect they’re part of a larger issue:
- White or red patches in the mouth
- Persistent sores, ulcers, or irritation in the mouth cavity
- Difficulty in chewing, swallowing, or moving the jaw or tongue
- Numbness in the tongue
- A sore throat that doesn’t go away
- A constant toothache or pain in the jaw
- An earache
Men are twice as likely to get oral cancer as women, and while the cause of cancer-causing abnormal squamous cell mutation is unknown, certain risk factors have been identified.
Risk Factors for Oral Health
Tobacco: Tobacco can contribute to oral cancer because it contains cancer-causing agents (carcinogens) like tar, arsenic, benzene, and cadmium, which are among those found in cigarettes. Vaping and chewing tobacco also present risks for developing oral cancer. Roughly 75 percent of all people who get oral cancer use tobacco products.
Ultraviolet Light Exposure: “Cancers of the lip are more common among people who work outdoors and visit tanning beds, and among those with prolonged exposure to sunlight,” according to the Cancer Treatment Center of America.
Drinking Alcohol: Drinking excessive alcohol increases your risk of oral cancer. If you drink alcohol and use tobacco products, you have an even greater risk of oral cancer.
Age and Nutrition: The risk of developing oral cancer increases with age. There’s also research that says consuming certain fruits, vegetables, and seafood items may help protect against oral cancer. View a mouth-healthy vegetarian rib recipe.
Human Papilloma Viruses (HPV): Human papillomaviruses (HPV) are more than 100 related viruses, some of which are linked to the development of oral and oropharyngeal cancers. In fact, 70 percent of oropharyngeal cancers may be attributed to HPV, which is mostly spread through skin-to-skin contact and oral-genital contact.
Poor Dental and Oral Hygiene: Untreated dental plaque and tooth decay can cause infections in the mouth and gums. This can accelerate the growth of oral cancer.
If you suspect you might have oral cancer symptoms, or if your lifestyle features multiple risk factors, contact your dentist and doctor immediately. Otherwise, continue to visit your dentist twice a year for regular appointments, which typically include oral cancer screenings.
For more oral health information, check out our blog.