Mouth cancer: everything you need to know

Mouth cancer is one of the head and neck tumors. Often this neoplasm is named as oral cancer. It is one that develops in any of the parts that make up the mouth. In this way, the tongue, lips and gums are included.

Its mortality is relatively high, but it also has serious aesthetic and functional consequences. Therefore, in this article we explain everything you need to know about mouth cancer and how to identify it.

What is mouth cancer?

Mouth cancer, as we have pointed out, is one that occurs in any part of the oral cavity and the oropharynx. As explained by the American Dental Association, these types of neoplasms are divided into two types:

  • Cancer that occurs in the oral cavity as such: This includes malignant tumors that appear on the lips, gums, the front of the tongue, and the palate.
  • Malignant tumors of the oropharynx: This group includes tumors that develop at the base of the tongue and tonsils.

The incidence of mouth cancer is increasing dramatically around the world. As stated in an article published in Advances in Odontostomatology, it is more frequent in people over 50 years of age. In fact, it usually appears more in men than in women.

This is because it is related to the consumption of tobacco and alcohol. In many countries, men are more linked to these habits than women. It is also important to note that most cases are detected on the lateral border of the tongue.

Tobacco is one of the primary risk factors for mouth cancer.

Possible symptoms

Symptoms of mouth cancer are inconspicuous. They often go unnoticed for quite some time. Even patients may not give it enough importance until late in the neoplasm.

One of the most frequent signs is the appearance of a sore in some part of the mouth. This sore or wound does not heal even after weeks. A white or reddish patch may also form on the oral mucosa.

As explained by specialists from the Mayo Clinic, some people experience pain in the mouth or ears. Many have dental problems, difficulty swallowing, or a lump may be seen inside the oral cavity.

Causes of mouth cancer

Mouth cancer, like any other malignancy, It occurs when there is a mutation in deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in cells. In most cases the affected tissue is that of squamous cells. What happens is that they begin to proliferate abnormally, affecting the surroundings.

It is not known exactly why these mutations occur. However, different factors have been identified that increase the risk of this happening.

Risk factors for suffering it

The main risk factor for mouth cancer is smoking. This is how the American Cancer Society, which states that the risk of suffering from this type of neoplasm is related to the amount of tobacco that has been consumed and the length of time the habit has been maintained.

It does not only refer to the fact of smoking as such. Chewing tobacco is also risky. That is why it is essential that anyone with suspected or confirmed oral neoplasia stop smoking.


Alcohol also increases the risk of mouth cancer. In addition, regular users often smoke continuously as well. That is why both factors are usually associated.

Human papillomavirus infection

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a very common infection. It is associated with a multitude of neoplasms, such as cancer of the cervix, vulvar and, also, mouth cancer. So much so that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is the cause of 70% of oropharyngeal cancers in the United States.

It is important to note that not all people with the infection develop cancer. However, as it is a frequent situation, its incidence is increasing.

You might be interested in: Types of human papillomavirus

Age and gender

Age and gender also act as risk factors for mouth cancer. Most cases occur in men over the age of 50.

Mouth cancer and oral lichen planus

Lichen planus is an inflammatory autoimmune disease. It usually appears in people over 40 or 50 years old and is a whitish lesion of the oral mucosa, although it can also be an erythematous plaque.

According to an article published in Advances in Odonto-stomatology, the most serious complication of oral lichen planus is the evolution to mouth cancer. Therefore, when it is diagnosed, this risk must be taken into account.

How is it diagnosed?

A good physical examination is essential to diagnose mouth cancer. Many times it is the dentist himself who observes an abnormality in a routine examination.

The most common is that complementary tests are required to reach the definitive diagnosis. The method that provides the most information is biopsy. It consists of extracting a sample of the lesion to analyze it in the laboratory.

Once the suspicion of mouth cancer has been confirmed, an extension study must be carried out. For this, tests such as endoscopy, MRI or computed tomography are usually performed. So you can see if the cancer has spread beyond the oral cavity.

Treatments available for mouth cancer

Mouth cancer must be treated as quickly as possible. The first option, if the tumor is small and localized, it is surgery. Ideally, try to remove the entire tumor, leaving sufficient margins of healthy tissue.

In the event that the cancer has metastasized to other organs, it is usually necessary to use radiation therapy or chemotherapy. This not only depends on the spread, but also varies depending on the size of the primary tumor and its cellular characteristics.

Surgery can have aesthetic and functional consequences. For this reason it may be necessary for the patient to undergo therapy to learn to swallow again or speak normally.

Surgery is the first option in oral cancer, combined with chemotherapy or radiotherapy if there is extension to other tissues.

Can mouth cancer be prevented?

Although the cause of oral cancer is not exactly known, we have seen that there are many factors that increase the risk of suffering from it. Therefore, by avoiding certain habits, we can significantly reduce their incidence.

The first step is to avoid tobacco and alcohol. Especially the excessive and frequent consumption of either drug.

Another fundamental behavior is to be careful with sun exposure. This is because lip cancer is highly associated with ultraviolet (UV) radiation. That is why it is important to protect your lips, as well as your skin, whenever you are going to sunbathe or be exposed for a long period.

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Mouth cancer increases its incidence

Although it is true that mouth cancer is not one of the most common types, its incidence is increasing. It is very important to emphasize again that this variety of tumors are frequently associated with alcohol and tobacco.

Therefore, you must be aware of the risk and avoid these habits. Further, It is essential to go to the dentist for controls. In the same way, before any symptom or alarm sign, always consult a professional.