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Four Things You Should Know about Oral Cancer

man having his teeth examined by a dentist
A man visiting the dentist receives an oral cancer screening.

Oral cancer is a cancer that forms in tissues of the mouth or the oropharynx (the part of the throat at the back of the mouth). As part of Oral, Head, and Neck Cancer Awareness Month this April, here are four things you need to know about finding and preventing oral cancer.

1. Whether You’re at Risk

A risk factor is something that increases your chance of developing a disease. Some risk factors can be avoided (like using tobacco), but some can’t (like age or family history). According to the National Cancer Institute, these are risk factors for oral cancer:

  • Tobacco use
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • HPV infection
  • Extended sun exposure
  • Personal history of oral cancer
  • Poor diet
  • Use of the betel nut (a stimulating nut often chewed in Southeast Asia)

The more risk factors you have, the more you increase your chance of developing oral cancer.

2. When You Should See a Doctor

HCI experts recommend having your dentist screen for oral cancer at routine check-ups (another good reason to see the dentist regularly). But if you notice any of these symptoms between check-ups, make an appointment with your doctor or an ear, nose, and throat specialist:

  • Patches on the inside of your mouth or lips
  • An open sore in your lip or mouth that does not heal
  • Bleeding in your mouth
  • Loose teeth
  • Difficulty or pain when swallowing
  • A lump in your neck
  • An earache that does not go away
  • Numbness on the lower lip and chin

These symptoms do not always mean you have oral cancer. They could be symptoms of other health problems.

3. What Happens Next

If a doctor finds signs of oral cancer, they will most likely order a biopsy to confirm it is oral cancer. If cancer is diagnosed, the next steps are different for each person. The best thing to do is talk with your doctor about further tests and treatment options. Each cancer is different, and each person may make different choices about treatment.

4. How You Can Prevent Oral Cancer

Quit smoking or chewing tobacco. According to the National Cancer Institute, when you stop smoking, your risk for oral cancer decreases by 50% within five years. After 20 years, your risk becomes the same as someone who has never smoked. Visit

Get the HPV vaccine. People infected with certain types of human papilloma virus (HPV) are 15 times more likely to develop oral cancer. The HPV vaccine lowers your chances of becoming infected with different types of HPV, including the types that increase your risk of developing oral cancer. Learn more about HPV and the HPV vaccine.