Oral Cancer: Understanding the Causes of Oral Cancer


Oral cancer affects tens of thousands of Americans every year. Unfortunately, many of these people lose their lives to the disease, especially if it’s diagnosed at its later stages. While there’s no way to completely eliminate your risk of developing cancer of the mouth, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk. Here’s what you should know about the causes and symptoms of oral cancer.

What Is Oral Cancer?

Also known as mouth cancer, oral cancer is any form of the disease occurring somewhere in the mouth, including:

  • Lips
  • Tongue
  • Gums
  • Roof or floor of the mouth
  • Lining inside the cheeks

Oral cancer is one of several kinds of cancer grouped in a broader category called “head and neck cancers”. Oral cancer and head and neck cancers are typically treated similarly.

Oral Cancer Causes

Medical experts cannot always pinpoint the exact cause of every oral cancer; however, they do know what makes it more likely to occur. According to the American Cancer Society, there are several risk factors that can cause cells to become cancerous, including:

  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Excessive sun exposure to the lips
  • A weakened immune system
  • The papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted virus
  • Tobacco use, whether it’s cigarettes, pipes, cigars, snuff or chewing tobacco

All of these risk factors have the potential to damage the DNA in cells and cause them to become cancerous. If you have several risk factors, your risk of developing oral cancer increases.

What Are the Symptoms?

Since your chances of survival depend greatly on how soon your oral cancer is discovered, it’s important to watch for common signs, including:

  • Unexplained bleeding
  • A bump or growth on the inner lining of your mouth
  • Loose teeth or a thickening of oral tissue
  • Jaw stiffness, tongue pain or dentures that fit poorly
  • Sore throat that doesn’t seem to get better
  • Painful chewing or difficulty swallowing

If you notice any of these symptoms, visit your physician or dentist as soon as possible.

Reducing Your Risk

While you can’t completely eliminate your risk of developing oral cancer, the Mayo Clinic provides a list of steps you can take to seriously lower your risk. These include:

  • Don’t use tobacco or take steps to quit as soon as possible. The longer you use tobacco, the greater your chances of developing mouth cancer.
  • Drink in moderation. Alcohol can irritate the cells in the tissues lining your mouth, leaving them more vulnerable to oral cancer.
  • Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. Research has shown you can reduce your risk of oral cancer by consuming a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
  • Protect your lips. Avoid excessive sun exposure to your lips; use UV-blocking lip balm or wear a wide-brimmed hat to block the sun.

In addition to these steps, you should also visit your dentist for routine examinations, so he or she can inspect your mouth for abnormalities that may indicate oral cancer or precancerous changes.