According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, about 54,000 Americans will receive a diagnosis of oral or oropharyngeal cancer each year. Of those diagnosed, only half will survive for another five years. Unfortunately, about 10,850 deaths occur yearly from oral cancer. What can help prevent these deaths? Early detection and treatment. By increasing awareness regarding oral cancer signs, people can seek an assessment, receive a diagnosis, and obtain treatment before cancer progresses.
The signs of oral cancer often look like typical dental problems, like gingivitis or other common oral issues. It’s vital to understand when to seek a physician’s assessment to diagnose these symptoms, find the root cause, and take action. The following are 15 signs of oral cancer to be on the lookout for.
15. Mouth Sores
Most mouth sores occur due to small abrasions, a minor virus, or a canker sore. These sores typically resolve within a week to 10 days and, for the most part, are harmless. If a sore keeps recurring or fails to heal within two weeks, it could indicate something more serious. When a sore that doesn’t heal also feels hard to the touch and bleeds frequently, it might help to consult with a physician.
14. Tongue Pain
Because the tongue contains numerous nerves for tasting and eating, it can be extra sensitive to pain. A small growth or cut on the tongue can feel extremely painful, even when it’s too small to see. Persistent pain on the tongue can indicate oral cancer and should be followed up by a physician.
13. Tobacco Use
Whether they choose to smoke it or chew it, people who use tobacco have a higher risk for oral cancer. Almost 80 percent of people who are diagnosed with oral cancer are regular users of tobacco products. Smokers are 10 times more likely to develop oral cancers than nonsmokers. Because the smoke and tobacco toxins have direct contact with the mouth area, tobacco smoking can cause oral cancer. However, chewing tobacco users have a higher risk of coming down with lip, cheek, and gum cancers.
12. Bad Breath
Bad breath might indicate something as familiar as tooth decay or gum disease. But in some cases, bad breath can be a sign of oral cancer. When a tumor in the mouth develops into an ulcer, it can harbor bacteria. This bacteria can emit a foul odor that doesn’t go away when you brush your teeth. Instead, it remains even after careful brushing and flossing. Typically, swallowing flushes out bacteria and food bits, which keep the mouth clean. Pain from oral cancer can also make swallowing uncomfortable, allowing food items and foreign particles to accumulate, leading to bad breath.
11. Loose Teeth
Most times, loose teeth can be attributed to dental issues rather than oral cancer. However, if oral cancer develops in the gum area, it can impact how teeth stay seated in the mouth. Oral cancer can dislodge one or two teeth, allowing them to wiggle and loosen. A dentist or physician might recommend a biopsy of the area to determine if a tumor or gum tissue is benign or malignant.
10. Unintentional Weight Loss
People can lose weight without intending to do so. Anxiety, depression, or a physical illness can reduce someone’s overall weight. However, when oral cancer causes weight loss, it’s more often due to the pain from chewing or swallowing. Tumors or oral cancer that spread to other areas can also cause a person to drop pounds quickly, without any changes in activity or diet. If weight starts dropping swiftly, it may be time to see a doctor.
9. Numbness In the Mouth
Tumors resulting from oral cancer can become large enough to impede or injure the nerves in and around the mouth. The onset of the numbness isn’t sudden; it occurs after months of pain. Though most cases of numbness aren’t oral cancer, it’s best to see a healthcare professional to confirm.
The hoarseness that stems from oral cancer is different from the raspy voice that people associate with long-term smokers. Rather than a gradual development, as with people who smoke, a hoarse voice from oral cancer happens suddenly. Vocal changes that occur out of the blue or within a week or two may require follow-up with a doctor.
7. Red or White Patches
Areas that are red or white on the tongue, gums, inner cheeks, or other mouth regions that don’t heal might be caused by oral cancer. If the area near the red or white discoloration is firm or sore, it may signify that a tumor is forming. Patches of red or white in the mouth may indicate oral cancer and require medical care.
6. Difficulty Enunciating Words
The tongue and lips are essential for sounding out words correctly. Because oral cancer can impact nerves and cause pain, articulating words can become hard to do. Individuals with oral cancer may find themselves having to work harder to enunciate words.
5. Jaw Pain
The jaw pain from oral cancer might be mistaken for lockjaw because people often associate the inability to move the jaw with thaw disorder. However, oral cancer can make it uncomfortable to open the mouth wide or open the mouth at all. Oral cancer may affect the nerves and muscles, making the jaw feel like it’s clamped together or too painful to open.
4. Lump in the Neck
The lymph nodes located in the neck area are good indicators that something is wrong in the body. If the lymph nodes are hard or lumpy, it’s time to see a physician. The lymph nodes are often affected only after symptoms appear in the mouth and show that oral cancer has progressed. See a physician if a lump in the neck doesn’t resolve itself in a few weeks.
3. Ill-Fitting Dentures
Poorly fitting dentures increase the risk of oral cancer. The use of dentures by itself is associated with an increased risk of developing oral cancer. Though dentures don’t cause cancer, the repeated trauma, inflammation, and infection that occurs with ill-fitting dentures can increase the risk. It’s vital to see a dentist when dentures cause issues because poorly fitting dentures can injure oral tissue.
2. Ear Pain
Because oral cancer impacts the nerves in and around the mouth, ear pain can be a sign of oral cancer. If ear pain only affects one side, with no indications of an ear infection, it might have something to do with the area’s nerves. The nerves that affect the mouth and vocal cords are also connected to the ears, making ear pain one of the signs of oral cancer. Persistent pain in one ear may need a doctor’s assessment.
1. Thickening of the Skin
Leukoplakia is the thickened, semi-white patches that develop on the insides of the cheeks, on the tongue or on the gums. They can’t be scraped or rinsed off. Although most leukoplakia patches are noncancerous, some are signs of precancerous cells. “Speckled leukoplakia” is a white and red thickened area of skin that is a sign of oral cancer and should be checked by a physician.
Preventing Oral Cancer
Preventing oral cancer starts with paying close attention to oral health by seeing a dentist regularly and keeping up with regular dental and flossing. Avoiding the use of tobacco products is important to the reduction of oral cancer risk. The following steps can also decrease the risk of oral cancer:
- It’s essential to keep lips away from sunlight. Like skin cancer, sun exposure can increase the risk of oral cancer. Limiting time out in the sun and avoiding peak hours (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) can keep sun exposure to a minimum. During time spent in the sun, individuals should use a lip protectant with SPF.
- HPV infections cause 70% of oral and oropharyngeal cancers. An HPV vaccine reduces the risk of oral cancer because it prevents infection by the human papillomavirus. Getting an HPV vaccine is recommended for young people 11-26 years old to keep HPV and cancer at bay.