Mouth cancer: symptoms, risk factors and early detection methods

Mouth cancer, sometimes called oral cancer, can affect the lips, tongue, cheeks and throat. Every year in the UK, there are 4,000 new cases of mouth cancer identified and 1,700 deaths. Mouth cancer is particularly associated with people over 40 who smoke and/or drink alcohol. However, younger people can also fall victim to the disease.


What is mouth cancer?

Mouth cancer is a malignant growth that can occur in any part of the mouth. Common areas of the mouth that are susceptible to cancer are the tongue, the insides of the cheeks, the roof of the mouth, the lips and the gums. Less common areas are the pharynx, the tonsils and the saliva glands.


What does mouth cancer look like?

Mouth cancer usually manifests as a painless ulcer that does not heal normally. Less often, a red or white patch in the mouth may develop into a cancer.


Am I at risk of mouth cancer?

Anyone can be affected by mouth cancer, though it usually occurs in people aged over 40 years. It is also more common in men than women.

Smoking or chewing tobacco greatly increases your risk of mouth cancer. Heavy drinking is also a risk factor. If you both smoke and drink, then your chances of getting mouth cancer are much greater.


How can mouth cancer be detected early?

If mouth cancer is recognised early, then there is a good chance that it can be treated. For this reason, check your mouth regularly and report anything suspicious to your doctor or dentist. Regular dentist appointments also help, because dentists are trained to spot early signs of mouth cancer.


How can I reduce my risk of mouth cancer?

  • Check your mouth regularly for any unusual changes. In particular, keep an eye out for any unusual red or white patches, sores or lumps on the gums or tongue that do not heal within two weeks.
  • Report unusual signs and symptoms to your doctor or dentist.
  • Visit your dentist regularly — at least once a year. Dentists are trained to spot signs of mouth cancer during their routine examinations, so one of the best ways to catch mouth cancer early is with routine dental check-ups.
  • Stop smoking. Smoking is a major risk factor for mouth cancer. Therefore, the best thing is to stop smoking completely. Help is available—talk to your doctor or call the NHS helpline on 111. Another thing that may help are nicotine replacement products. You can buy them at your local chemist, or ask your doctor if you can have them on prescription.
  • Drink less alcohol. Alcohol is another major risk factor for mouth cancer. For that reason, it’s best to stay within the safe limits for alcohol—no more than 2-3 units a day for women and 3-4 for men.


Further information

If you want to talk in confidence about cancer, call Cancer Research UK on 0808 800 4040. It’s a free phone number for people affected by cancer.

If you want advice on how to stop smoking, call the NHS non-emergency number on 111.