How to Identify the Signs of Mouth Cancer

Are you familiar with the signs of mouth cancer? According to the National Institutes of Health, 2.5 percent of all cancers involve the pharynx and the oral cavity, which includes the mouth, tongue and throat. But some things can put you at higher risk than others. Smoking and drinking, for example, both increase your risk. Older individuals are also more susceptible, often due to past health habits and a naturally lower resistance to infection.

The Sore That Won't Go Away!

The mouth takes a lot of wear and tear. Hot and spicy foods can create burns, whereas hard food products and poor brushing technique can cause abrasions to the cheeks and gum tissue. Luckily, this kind of trauma will usually heal in seven to 14 days. Some sores are even painless and just appear red or white, or a combination of both. These also may improve over a two-week time period. If the sore in the mouth persists, however, it needs to be checked by a dentist.

Bump in My Mouth

Any swelling or bump on the tongue that isn't from certain trauma should be evaluated by your dentist too. A bump can appear on the sides, bottom or top of the tongue. Sharp teeth or dental restorations may be the cause, but only a dentist can rule this out. Bumps may also show up on the inside of the cheeks and on the lips. Several reasons cause bumps to form in these areas and not all of them are signs of mouth cancer. You can sooth these bumps with gentle, alcohol-free formulas like Colgate® Peroxyl® Mouth Sore Rinse, which is also effective for soothing canker sores and even irritation brought on by ongoing oral cancer treatment.

Self Evaluation

Unlike other parts of your body, it's not easy to do a real self examination. You need a mirror and good lighting to see the surfaces of your mouth. Even then, there are many places that just won't be visible. You can also use your index finger to feel for bumps, but without visual inspection, this method will not yield much as to the source of the problem.

Oral Cancer Screening

Your dentist is trained to perform screenings for oral cancer. He or she may use visual inspection, special scopes, lighting equipment or staining to locate abnormal tissue. Dental x-rays can also help identify risk for mouth cancer. If you feel you're showing symptoms, you should request a screening at your dental visits. This is especially important if you smoke, chew tobacco, consume alcohol on a regular basis or have a combination of these three habits.

The Biopsy

If abnormal tissue is found in your mouth, a biopsy may be conducted to surgically remove all or part of the abnormal tissue. It is then sent to a pathologist for evaluation under a microscope. These evaluations look for cancerous cells that have been able to enter your oral tissue, and additional tests can be performed to decide on the right course of treatment.

The Good News

The number of cases of mouth cancer due to tobacco use is in decline. So if you smoke, join the trend and seek help to quit. Better still, the survival rate following the early detection of mouth cancer is high. If you have a mouth sore or abnormal-looking spot in your mouth that lasts more than two weeks, see your dentist for an oral examination.

About the author: James Burke Fine, DMD, is Associate Dean for Postdoctoral Programs, Professor of Clinical Dentistry, and Director of Post Graduate Periodontics at Columbia University College of Dental Medicine, New York. He has been a principal investigator or co-investigator in funded research projects and has authored or co-authored numerous articles, chapters, and abstracts in the literature regarding periodontal disease, including co-authoring the text Clinical Guide to Periodontics. In addition, Fine has presented at invited lectures and seminars. He maintains a practice limited to periodontics in Hoboken, NJ, and in the faculty practice at Columbia University.