8 Warning Signs of Oral Cancer  

8 Warning Signs of Oral Cancer  

 Whitney DiFoggio MA, RDH
Written by Whitney DiFoggio MA, RDH🔬 Evidence Based
8 Warning Signs of Oral Cancer  

Why is it important to know the most common oral cancer signs and symptoms? Because every year, about 54,000 Americans will be diagnosed with the disease, and approximately 13,500 Americans will lose their lives annually. Being familiar with oral cancer symptoms can help save your life from this “silent” disease. 

The National Cancer Institute stresses the importance of detecting oral cancer early. If you think you might have symptoms of oral cancer, it's important to act quickly. Contact your dentist for an oral cancer exam to catch it early, and visit the Oral Cancer Foundation for support and free oral cancer screenings.

What Is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in and around the mouth or throat, including your lips and tongue. The good news is that if you or your dentist catch it early, the prognosis is good. The bad news is that it’s hard to self-diagnose oral cancer until it reaches a really progressive stage of the disease (making it extremely deadly.) 

A lot of different factors can increase a person’s risk of developing oral cancer, such as sun exposure, the HPV virus, smoking, heavy alcohol intake, etc. Men are twice as likely to develop mouth cancer as women, and it usually affects people over age 50. That being said, anyone is at risk of developing the disease, so routine oral cancer screenings with your dentist are a must!

What Are the Symptoms of Oral Cancer?

Most oral cancer symptoms are extremely easy to overlook. That’s why scheduling an oral cancer screening with your dentist every six months is so important. Most of these common signs are either difficult to see (even if you’re using a flashlight and a mirror) or won’t become evident until the cancer has reached an advanced stage. 

For example, pain or huge visible tumors are usually not the first oral cancer symptoms to look for. Rather, your dentist and dental team are probably going to be looking for extremely small areas of tissues that look out of place compared to the other mucosa (soft tissues) in your mouth. For example, tiny patches of white or red tissues that don’t blend in with the skin around them, and lumps or bumps don’t have a corresponding shape that “matches” them on the opposite side of your mouth. 

Asymmetrical shapes, nodules, sores that don’t heal, or irregular borders around spots you do see are all common oral cancer signs. 

The goal is to catch oral cancer in its “pre-cancerous” or early stages when tissues are just starting to show signs of being irregular. That’s where your dentist comes in, performs a biopsy, and you discuss options for treatment. 

If you haven’t had an oral cancer screening in a year or more, be sure to let your dentist know ASAP if you’re experiencing any of these possible oral cancer symptoms below.

8 Common Mouth Cancer Signs and Symptoms

If you have oral cancer, chances are you’re going to experience at least one of the following symptoms:

1. Sores or bumps in the mouth that do not heal.

Any time you have a sore or ulcer in your mouth that doesn’t heal, you need to get it checked out. Normally, sores or injuries will repair themselves within 10-14 days. If there’s some type of a wound or ulcer that’s there for more than a few weeks, it’s no bueno. Sure, it might be an abscessed tooth and not oral cancer, but even then, you need to have it looked at. With mouth, head, and neck cancers, by the time you can tell there’s a sore there, it means it’s starting to become more advanced and at risk of spreading to other areas of your mouth, head, and neck. 

2. Persistent pain in your mouth.

So normally, we don’t say wait until something hurts before you see a dentist. Cancer is the same way. But some types of oral cancer can cause pain or discomfort. Some people even experience ear pain or pain around their TMJ; it has to do with the main nerve that runs through your face and mouth and how all of those different areas tie back to the same nerve. If cancer affects your airway, it can also cause throat or nose pain. 

3. Difficulty swallowing or chewing.

Some types of cancer interfere with the nerve tissues that control your tongue. This can make it more difficult for you to swallow, chew your food, or even talk. Additionally, cancers CAN cause enlarged nodules or knots as well as swelling in your lymph nodes, which can make swallowing more difficult. 

“Dysphagia” is the clinical term that medical experts use to describe when someone has difficulty swallowing. It’s often a side-effect when the tumorous growth is blocking the space needed to swallow your food. People who have been treated for oral cancer may find that dysphagia is a side-effect of radiation therapy. 

4. Loose teeth.

If you have loose teeth for no reason whatsoever, you need to have your dentist check them ASAP. Sometimes cancerous growths or tumors can form in the bone next to teeth, causing those teeth to become extremely loose or sore whenever you’re eating. Most of the time, loose teeth are a normal part of childhood or the side-effect of advanced gum disease. But if it’s not time for your child to have a loose tooth or you’ve never had gum problems in your life, you need to rule out other possibilities. 

5. Numbness.

If your nerves become involved, it can cause numbness in your mouth, lips, or tongue. Even if the area isn’t completely numb, but it feels tender or as if it’s starting to go numb, it’s not normal. Sure, somebody might pinch a nerve every now and then in their arm or leg, but you don’t see those types of things happen when it comes to your mouth, head, or neck. Even if you’re not worried about it being oral cancer, it’s still important to see a doctor, as other conditions like Bell’s Palsy or Lyme Disease might be to blame. 

6. Changes in the way the teeth fit together when the mouth is closed.

Abnormal growths in or around your mouth can literally change the anatomy of your bite. If tumors are pushing against the roots of your teeth, it will cause them to move or tilt out of place. It’s basically doing the same thing that a set of braces does by remodeling the bone around the roots of the teeth. Over time, you might start to notice some teeth not closing together like they used to. Maybe one is leaning over more, or another is erupting up higher than the other teeth. 

7. Changes in the sound of your voice.

Cancers that affect your throat or “larynx” can change how your voice sounds whenever you’re talking or singing. These cancers are usually somewhere right around your vocal cords. The good news is that noticing changes in how your voice sounds could help you identify oral cancer while it’s still in an early stage

8. A persistent sore throat or hoarseness.

Besides changes in your voice, your throat might also feel sore or leave you feeling hoarse, the same way you would after a bout of laryngitis. But most of us know when we’ve been recovering from a cold or virus. This type of throat soreness or irritation typically pops up out of the blue and hangs around for no good reason. Experts warn that you should also watch for other red flags, such as weight loss or trouble breathing. Your doctor or dentist will likely need to palpate the lymph nodes under your jaw and throughout your neck to feel for any masses or enlargements. 

Oral Cancer Prevention

Even though extremely healthy people can develop oral cancer, there are some steps you can take to reduce your risk of this disease. One is practicing sun safety by wearing SPF sunscreen and a hat when you go outdoors. Another is to give up using any and all tobacco products including smoking and chewing tobacco. And while drinking alcohol here and there isn’t considered a risk factor, heavy drinking is, so you’ll need to make some major lifestyle changes. In addition to all of these things, medical experts recommend seeing your dentist for regular oral cancer screenings; while exams won’t prevent you from getting cancer, they do help make sure that any cancerous areas are caught ASAP while they’re easier to treat. 

Talk With Your Dentist About Oral Cancers

The best thing you can do to protect yourself from oral cancer is to:

  1. Schedule regular oral cancer screenings with your dentist every year and
  2. Avoid common risk factors such as smoking or sun exposure.

Oral cancer is really hard to check for on your own, so skipping dental visits can cost you more than just your smile’s health. Someone with oral cancer is 20 times more likely to develop a second type of cancer within the next  5-10 years. When you see your dentist regularly, they can screen for cancerous and pre-cancerous tissues while they’re smaller and easier to treat oral cancer. That means a better outcome for your health and the ones you love. If you haven’t seen your dentist for an oral cancer screening in the past year, now’s the time to change that. 

 Whitney DiFoggio MA, RDH
Written by Whitney DiFoggio MA, RDH"Teeth Talk Girl," is a registered dental hygienist. She started her dental health journey on YouTube, educating the public through videos.
Last updated onMarch 10, 2024Here is our process

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