Mouth Cancer Alert: Know the Signs and Reduce Your Risk

Your lifestyle greatly influences your risk of lip and mouth cancer. Understand what causes oral cancer, and be on the lookout for its symptoms.

mouth cancer -- woman smoking cigarette

It's no surprise, and it's widely known: The longer a person uses tobacco, the more his or her risk of mouth cancer increases. Yet quitting remains a challenge. Understanding the symptoms of mouth cancer may make a difference.

© Robert Kneschke |

The lungs. The throat. The bladder. The pancreas. These are just a few of the areas of your body where smoking-related cancers can develop. Smoking also is a major contributor to the more than 48,000 cases of mouth cancer diagnosed in Americans each year.

Fortunately, avoiding smoking and other tobacco use may help to reduce the risk of cancers of the oral cavity and oropharynx, the portion of the throat located immediately behind the oral cavity that includes the soft palate, tonsils, and the back of the tongue. And, by knowing the warning signs, you may catch mouth cancer early, sometimes in a pre-cancerous stage, allowing the potential for early treatment that may minimize the cancer’s deadly and damaging effects.

Reduce Your Risk

The vast majority of people with mouth cancer are tobacco users, and the risk of developing cancer in the oral cavity and oropharynx increases the longer you use tobacco. The smoke from cigarettes, cigars, or pipe tobacco can lead to the development of cancers all over your mouth and throat. Pipe smoking, in particular, is a strong risk factor for cancer of the lips. And you don’t have to smoke tobacco to trigger cancer formation in your mouth and throat: Using snuff or chewing tobacco also can cause mouth cancer, particularly in the gums, cheeks, and the inside of your lips.

Alcohol consumption, particularly excessive drinking, also increases the risk. In fact, about 70 percent of people with mouth cancer are heavy drinkers, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). Combining tobacco and alcohol use only multiplies the risk. Some research suggests that people who smoke and drink heavily may be up to 100 times more likely to develop oropharyngeal cancer compared to those who don’t drink or smoke, the ACS notes.

So, by quitting or refraining from smoking altogether and limiting or avoiding alcohol consumption, you can reduce your risk of mouth cancer.

Most health experts recommend limiting alcohol consumption to no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink daily for women and anyone over age 65. A standard drink equates to 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1½ ounces of liquor or spirits. Be aware, too, that if you’ve had mouth cancer, it’s vital that you quit smoking and all tobacco use to avoid developing a second cancer. Talk to your physician about nicotine replacement products, medications, counseling, and other smoking-cessation strategies. (See also our post “Quit Smoking: Increase Your Life Expectancy with COPD.”)

Another risk factor for oral and oropharyngeal cancer is infection by the human papillomavirus (HPV), although only a small percentage of people with oral HPV infection develop these cancers. The virus can be transmitted from person to person via skin-to-skin contact or during sex. Some studies have linked HPV infection of the mouth and throat with sexual activities such as oral sex and open-mouth kissing. The odds of HPV infection also increase with the number of sexual partners you have. Ask your physician about your risk of HPV infection and whether you should be vaccinated against HPV.

And while your tongue and the inside of your mouth aren’t susceptible to the sun’s damaging ultraviolet radiation, your lips are. If you work outside or spend a lot of your leisure time outdoors, wear sunscreen lip balm to guard against lip cancer.

The risk of mouth cancer is twice as great in men as it is in women, partly because men historically have been more likely than women to smoke and drink heavily and because oral HPV infection occurs more commonly in men than in women, according to the ACS. Also, oral and oropharyngeal cancers occur more often in older adults, particularly those over age 55.

The Warning Signs

The most common symptoms of mouth cancer are a sore in the mouth or on the lip that does not heal and persistent mouth pain. Other potential symptoms include:

  • A lump or thickening of the lips, cheeks or gums
  • Red or white patches on the tongue, gums, tonsils, or the lining of the mouth
  • Bleeding in the mouth
  • Numbness of the lip, tongue, or mouth
  • Voice changes
  • Jaw swelling
  • Loose teeth or changes in how dentures fit
  • Problems moving the tongue or jaw
  • Sore throat, or a feeling that something is stuck in the throat
  • Persistent bad breath

These symptoms also may indicate other conditions, so it’s crucial to inform your doctor if you experience them so you can determine the cause. In some instances, mouth cancer produces no symptoms and is found during a routine dental or medical exam.

But oftentimes the cancer can be detected in its early stages, during an exam by your doctor or dentist. Undergo dental checkups at least once or twice a year (or more frequently if your dentist recommends), and have your doctor inspect your mouth as part of a routine check for cancer. And, take a good look in the mirror and periodically check your mouth for signs of mouth cancer.

Originally published in May 2016 and updated.

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Jim Black

Jim Black has served as executive editor of Cleveland Clinic’s Men’s Health Advisor newsletter since 2005. He has written about prostate diseases, men’s health, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and a wide … Read More

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