What are the first signs of oral cancer?

by | Sep 3, 2022


Oral cancer also known as mouth cancer is the most common form of head and neck cancer which typically affects people 60 and above, though it can develop in people of any age. Its first signs include changes or white patches to parts of your tongue, lips, mouth roof or lining of the mouth. Signs and symptoms are not always very clear during the initial stages which is why it is important that we have regular dental checkups scheduled so that a professional can asses our oral health and spot any potential signs.

What is oral cancer?

As the name indicates it is cancer or tumour that develops in a part of your mouth. It can occur on the surface of the tongue, the inside of the cheeks, the mouth palate, lips or gums and it can also affect your oropharynx. This is the last part of your tongue, your tonsils or the sides and back of your throat.

A mouth is composed of different types of cells and the type of cancer a person gets will depend on which type of cells the cancer begins in. The most common type of mouth cancer accounts for 9 out of 10 cases is Squamous cell carcinoma. This is in fact true regardless of where in the mouth the cancer starts. Other less common varieties of mouth cancer include:

Buccal Mucosa Cancer (Inner Cheek Cancer) – Usually a lump inside the cheek tissue

Floor of Mouth Cancer – Can be mistaken for a canker sore starting as a horseshoe-shaped area under the tongue

Gum Cancer – Often mistaken for gingivitis, this type of cancer is highly treatable when detected early

Hard Palate Cancer – This is a rare form of mouth cancer and can usually be detected by an ulcer on the roof of the mouth

Lip Cancer – When diagnosed early this is highly curable and dentists are usually able to detect signs such as a sore on the lip that does not heal, bleeding, pain or numbness or a lump or thickening of the lips are all indicators

Tongue Cancer – Can occur on the front or back of the tongue starting as a white or red patch on the tongue with a sore throat that does not go away and causes pain when swallowing.

Who is most at risk of oral cancer?

We do not know exactly what causes all mouth cancers, but we do know that certain factors can increase the risk of developing it. According to the Cancer Research Centre UK, anything that can increase your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Further, while different cancers have different risk factors it does not mean that having one or more of these will cause you to definitely get cancer.

Tobacco use – If you smoke cigarettes, cigars, chew tobacco or betel leaves it can increase the risk with 25 out 100 mouth cancer and oropharyngeal cancers in the UK being caused by tobacco use.

Alcohol – Alcohol too increases your risk of oral cancer which is further increased if you smoke. Around 35 out of every 100 are caused by the overconsumption of alcohol.

Age – Unfortunately as we age the risk of developing oral cancer increases. If you have a family history of oral cancer your risk is slightly higher.

Practicing poor oral hygiene – Studies have shown that poor oral hygiene has been associated with a higher risk of developing oral cancer.

Weak immune system – Your immune system is what fights infections for you and so when your immunity is weakened by some illnesses or medications it can put you at a higher risk of developing mouth cancer.

Certain mouth conditions can cause changes to happen in the cells in the lining of the mouth and appear as red or white patches, known as erythroplakia and leukoplakia respectively. With a weak immunity, these conditions can develop into cancer over time and are referred to as pre-cancerous cells. These can be spotted during dental visits which is why regular dental visits are so important.

Lack of nutrients in the diet – When you lack nutrients in your diet such as being low in fruit and vegetables it causes you to suffer from a lack of minerals and vitamins, again which leads to an increased risk.

Where can you find signs of oral cancer:

  • Tongue
  • Inside cheeks
  • Roof of mouth
  • Lips
  • Gums

What are the first signs of oral cancer?

The problem with mouth cancer is that its first signs can often be mistaken for common mouth problems or simple changes that come with lifestyle changes or age for example. Some signs that should maybe concern you are mouth ulcers that do not heal or patches on the inside of your mouth that do not go away.

You may experience pain in your mouth or throat or ears that is not connected to any apparent injuries or may find sudden unexplained lumps in your mouth and neck, find that your teeth are loose and that sockets get infected after a dental procedure or that you experience difficulty in eating, speaking or swallowing food. These are just a few common indicators to consider. If you have any such concerns you should consult your dentist for clarifications.

How to minimize the risk of oral cancer?

There are steps you can take to minimise the risk of oral cancer and take an active role in preventing it.

It goes without saying that if you are someone who smokes cigarettes, cigars and chews tobacco or betel leaves then you need to cut back or try stopping altogether.

The same goes if you are someone who drinks alcohol, you need to stop entirely or practice moderation.

Eat a well-balanced diet so that your body is well nourished and healthy.

Applying sunscreen helps protect your face from UV rays.

Even if you have no pressing dental issues, schedule regular dental check-ups. If you are between the ages of 20 and 40 you should aim to have an oral exam every three years and shift it to an annual examination after the age of 40.

There are certain checks you can do on your own as a precautionary measure. If you spot something different or unusual then contact your dentist immediately.

Feel your neck and lower jaw for lumps

Feel the front of your gums, roof your mouth and lips for anything different

Check the inside of your mouth with a bright light to look for any discoloured patches. Examine the back of your mouth as well.

Examine your tongue thoroughly by pulling it and checking the sides, top and bottom. Roll your tongue back to check the bottom of your mouth.

Are there treatment options?

If anything is amiss there are a few treatment options that will be provided such as radiation therapy, targeted therapy, chemotherapy and immunotherapy. However, working towards prevention is always your best option.


To ensure early detection or to maintain good oral health it is important that you make regular dental checkups a part of your life. Not only does it ensure that your teeth and gums are looked after well, but it also enables your dentist to take quick action if there is a potential risk. Taking just a little time from your busy life to visit your dentist is an important gift of continued oral health that you give yourself.