Gum Cancer or Gingivitis? How to Tell the Difference

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Your gums feel strange, but not enough for you to know what the problem is. Maybe they're irritated, they bleed when you brush or floss or you've noticed a white spot on the surface itself. There are a number of issues that can affect your gums, not necessarily limited to gingivitis and more advanced forms of gum disease. Although gum disease is the more common of the two – affecting slightly more than 47 percent of all adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – oral cancer is also a legitimate possibility.

Gum cancer is even less common, affecting about 39,500 people in the U.S. this year as estimated by the American Cancer Society. Knowing how to tell the difference and when to see your dentist will help you keep your mouth healthy in spite of this uncomfortable condition.

Signs of Oral Cancer

Oral cancer can affect any area of your mouth, from the lips to the gums and from the inner cheek tissue to the tongue. Gum cancer, in particular, is easily confused with gum disease. Nonetheless, the former is characterized by patches or irregular growths on the gums. These are known as erythroleukoplakia when they are red and white, leukoplakia when they are white or erythroplakia when they are red.

Leukoplakia can be benign, whereas erythroleukoplakia and erythroplakia are more likely to be malignant. If you see any unusual growths on the surface of your gums, and they don't clear up on their own after two weeks, the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research recommends scheduling an appointment with a dentist to have him or her take a closer look and, if needed, a biopsy of the area.

Signs of Gingivitis

The signs of gingivitis are quite different from the signs of oral or gum cancer, but there are two things these conditions have in common. In the early stages, neither tend to be painful. Areas of redness can be connected to either cancer or gingivitis, but the redness can go unnoticed between the two. When a person has gingivitis, for example, his gums are usually dusky red, rather than a light pink. Secondly, gingivitis can make the gums more likely to bleed, become puffy or feel as tender to the touch as a cancerous gumline. A deep cleaning at your dentist's office, combined with a commitment to taking care of your teeth and gums at home, can help reverse gingivitis and prevent it from developing into a more severe form of periodontal disease.

Is There a Link Between the Two?

Having gingivitis shouldn't necessarily worry you that it will develop into cancer, but there is some degree of connection between having gum disease and contracting cancer – not limited to oral cancer. A 2015 study published in The Lancet Oncology found that men with gum disease carried a 14 percent higher risk for cancer than men without it. There may be a greater risk for lung or pancreatic cancer in certain circumstances, as well. The exact reason for the connection isn't quite clear, but it does highlight the importance of taking care of your mouth in the interest of the rest of your body.

What Can You Do?

The best way to reduce your risk for developing gingivitis, gum disease, gum cancer or another type of oral cancer is to see your dentist on a regular basis for checkups. He can spot and diagnose any problems before they become bigger problems. Just as important is good oral care at home, which includes brushing twice a day, using a toothpaste such as Colgate Total® Advanced Deep Clean and flossing at least once a day – all of which can minimize your chances of developing gingivitis. Avoiding cigarettes and tobacco products, and drinking only in moderation, can also help you cut your risk for developing an oral cancer that involves the gums.

Gingivitis and gum cancer are two very different conditions, but both of which you want to take seriously. Protect your mouth by seeing a dentist regularly.