What Causes Oral Cancer

Rock River Oral Surgery & Dental Implant Center

Oral Cancer

What is it?

Cancer is defined as uncontrollable growth of cells that invade and cause damage to surrounding tissue. Oral cancer appears as a growth or sore in the mouth that does not go away and progressively gets worse. Oral cancer includes: cancers of the lips, tongue, cheeks, floor of the mouth, hard and soft palate, sinuses, and pharynx (throat). These types of oral cancer can be life threatening if not detected and treated early.

Who Gets Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer accounts for roughly three percent of all cancers diagnosed annually in the United States, or about 53,000 new cases each year. According to the American Cancer Society, men face twice the risk of developing oral cancer as women, and men who are over age 50 face the greatest risk. Most oral cancers are related to tobacco use, alcohol use (or both), or infection by the human papilloma virus (HPV).

Common Causes

  • Tobacco and alcohol use: Tobacco use of any kind, including cigarette smoking, puts you at risk for developing oral cancers. Heavy alcohol use also increases the risk. Using both tobacco and alcohol increases the risk even further.

  • HPV: Infection with the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (specifically the HPV 16 type) has been linked to oral cancers.

  • Age: Risk increases with age. Oral cancers most often occur in people over the age of 40.

  • Sun Exposure: Cancer of the lip can be caused by sun exposure.

Symptoms of oral cancer

If you have any of these symptoms for more than two weeks, see a dentist, oral surgeon, or a doctor.

  • A sore, irritation, lump or thick patch in your mouth, lip, or throat

  • A white or red patch in your mouth

  • A sore throat or a feeling that something is caught in your throat

  • Difficulty chewing, swallowing, or speaking

  • Difficulty moving your jaw or tongue

  • Swelling of your jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable

  • Numbness in your tongue or other areas of your mouth

  • Ear pain

Oral Cancer: Diagnosis & Treatment

Because oral cancer can spread quickly, early detection is important. An oral cancer examination can detect early signs of cancer. The exam is painless and takes only a few minutes. Many dentists will perform the test during your regular dental check-up.

During the exam, your dentist or dental hygienist will check your face, neck, lips, and entire mouth for possible signs of cancer.

When oral cancer is detected early, it is treated with surgery or radiation therapy. Oral cancer that is further along when it is diagnosed may use a combination of treatments.

For example, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are often given at the same time. Another treatment option is targeted therapy, which is a newer type of cancer treatment that uses drugs or other substances to precisely identify and attack cancer cells. The choice of treatment depends on your general health, where in your mouth or throat the cancer began, the size and type of the tumor, and whether the cancer has spread.

Who treats oral cancer?

Your doctor may refer you to a specialist once oral cancer has been determined. Specialists who treat oral cancer include:

  • Head and neck surgeons

  • Oral & Maxillofacial Surgeons: Dentists who specialize in surgery of the mouth, face, and jaw

  • Otolaryngologists: Ear, nose, and throat doctors

  • Medical & Radiation Oncologists: Doctors who specifically treat cancer

Other health care professionals who may be part of a treatment team include dentists, plastic surgeons, reconstructive surgeons, speech pathologists, oncology nurses, registered dietitians, and mental health counselors.

Have Further Questions?

At Rock River Oral Surgery & Dental Implant Center we're all about helping you feel great about your smile!
Don't hesitate to ask us anything.

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Contact Info

Rockford Office  (815) 399-1234
Beloit Office  (608) 473-3992


  • Rockford, IL

    973 Featherstone Rd #102, Rockford, IL 61107

  • Beloit, WI

    2359 Murphy Woods Rd Beloit, WI 53511

Disclaimer: This website is provided for informational purposes only. No doctor-patient relationship is established through the use of this website. This website is not a substitute for examination or consultation with an oral and maxillofacial surgeon and as such, no diagnosis or treatment recommendations can be provided.

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