It’s Oral Cancer Awareness Month: Do You Know the Early Warning Signs?

April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month. It’s a time when the nation’s dental professionals, surgeons, and other medical associations join together to increase awareness of the importance of screenings and early detection. Each year in the U.S., there are about 54,000 new cases of oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer. Not only is oral cancer preventable, but it is also highly treatable and curable if caught early. 

Warning signs and symptoms of oral cancer 

The most common symptoms of oral cancer include: 

  • Mouth sores that last for more than two weeks 
  • Persistent mouth pain 
  • White or red patches on the inside of the mouth 
  • Swelling in the jaw or neck 
  • Lump or thickening in the mouth 
  • Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue
  • Painful chewing or swallowing 

Other less common symptoms to look out for include: 

  • Unexplained weight loss 
  • Vocal changes 
  • Frequent nosebleeds 
  • Ear pain 
  • Chronic bad breath 
  • Persistent coughing 
  • Mouth numbness 
  • Loosening of the teeth 
  • Jaw swelling (that makes dentures fit poorly) 

Am I at risk? 

Oral cancer results from DNA mutations that lead to uncontrolled cell growth and reproduction in certain regions of the mouth, such as the gums, tissue lining, under the tongue, and inside the cheek. While the exact cause of oral cancer is unknown, certain factors increase your risk of developing the disease. These include: 

Tobacco use 

Tobacco smokers are six times more likely to develop oral cancer than non-smokers. According to the Mouth Cancer Foundation, almost 90% of people with oral cancer are tobacco users; and those who chew tobacco are 50 times more likely to develop oral cancer. 

Frequent and heavy alcohol consumption 

The risk of head and neck cancer increases if you consume alcohol often and excessively. If you combine unhealthy drinking habits with tobacco use, your risk of developing cancer is even higher. 

Human papillomavirus (HPV) 

HPV is believed to be the cause of 70% of oral cancer cases in the U.S. HPV can infect the mouth and throat, causing cancers in areas including the tonsils and the base of the tongue. To protect yourself against HPV, health professionals recommend getting vaccinated and practicing safe vaginal, anal, and oral sex. 

High and constant sun exposure 

If you experience constant and prolonged sun exposure, you increase your risk of cancer in the lip area. Reduce the risk by practicing good skin hygiene, including using SPF sunscreen daily. 


The average age of diagnosis for oral cancer is 62 years old. Dental professionals advise adults over the age of 20 to get a screening every three years. Those over 40 years old should have screenings yearly. Tobacco users or patients with HPV should request oral cancer screening annually, regardless of age. 

To learn more about oral cancer, contact Tampa Bay Radiation Oncology. At Tampa Bay Radiation Oncology, more than a thousand men and women diagnosed with cancer each year turn to our trusted team of cancer specialists. We encourage you to call us, ask us a question, or consult with us to get a second opinion so you, too, can experience the difference.