Leading Causes of Oral Cancer

 In Patient Education

Unlike other types of cancer, oral cancer includes cancer of the lips, tongue, cheek, throat, and sinuses.  It is life threatening if not caught early enough and treated properly.  Children and young adults have minimal risk for oral cancer, but the odds increase over the age of 45. Men are more likely to be diagnosed with oral cancer over women.

Despite the numerous varieties of oral cancer, there are similar symptoms and signs. The most common symptoms are:

  • Swollen lumps or bumps inside the mouth and on the gums
  • Velvety patches in the mouth
  • Bleeding or numbness in any area of the mouth or neck
  • Sores on the face, neck, or mouth that last longer than 2 weeks
  • Trouble chewing or swallowing (moving the jaw)
  • Ear pain
  • A change in how your teeth fit together
  • Dramatic weight change

These signs should not be ignored, and if you are seeing any of these symptoms, contact your dentist.  The symptoms above are confirmed risks that lead to oral cancer if they are not treated in a timely manner.

Oral Cancer may produce those signs and symptoms, but what causes oral cancer? It is impossible to rank the causes by absolute certainty because there are so many factors in diagnosing cancer. Here are some of the most common causes of oral cancer.

Leading Causes of Oral Cancer

Smoking & Tobacco Products

Smoking cigarettes, cigars, or any tobacco product increases your chance of developing oral cancer by six times. This includes smokeless products like chewing tobacco and dip. Those who use smokeless tobacco products like chewing tobacco and dip are 50 times more likely to have oral cancer in the lip, cheek, and gums.

The longer you use tobacco, the greater your risk.  Continuation of smoking or partaking in smokeless tobacco products after receiving treatments for oral cancer increases your risk for developing a second type of oral cancer.

Studies show that second-hand smoke may increase the risk of oral cancer. If you do smoke, be mindful of those around you as to not pass along second-hand smoke.


Alcohol is one of the leading risks for oral cancer. The more you drink, the more likely you are to develop cancer. Alcohol helps harmful chemical enter the cells that line the mouth, throat, and esophagus. When alcohol and tobacco are used in conjunction, your risk increases. Alcohol slows down cell repair when their DNA is damaged by chemicals found in tobacco.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

Many strains of HPV are spread through sexual contact, including oral sex. If the infected cells make contact with the mouth or throat, there is a greater risk for oral cancer.  With over 100 different types of HPV viruses, they are given a number used to identify the strains. Infections with HPV-16 and HPV-18 strains are more likely to cause oral cancer over the other varieties.

Previous Cancer

If you have had cancer before, there is a greater chance of developing cancer again.  Once the cancer has been treated and there is continued alcohol and tobacco use, your risk is very high. Patients who suffer from throat, esophageal, and lung cancer are more susceptible to getting oral cancer if they do not follow their doctor’s advice and treatment plan.

Sun Exposure

Sun exposure increases the risk of developing lip cancer. This is especially true for fair-skinned people or people who work outside without proper skin protectant.  Wearing a hat that shades your face and wearing lip balm with SPF protectant can help reduce the risk of lip cancer. It is common to see cancer spots on the bottom lip, as it gets more sun exposure.


A diet lacking fruits and vegetables can lead to oral cancer. A component of food, carcinoids, is crucial to helping prevent cancer. Your diet must be optimized – reduced caloric intake, monounsaturated fat, and processed meat – to reduce the risk of cancer, especially squamous cell carcinoma, the most common oral cancer.

Focus on a diet that consists of fruits, vegetables, and grains, which are a main source of vitamins and fiber. Other preventative measures include consuming micronutrients like vitamin C, E, antioxidants, zinc, beta-carotene, and folate.  Eating fried and broiled foods and using the microwave to cook food should be avoided because of the increased risk of heterocyclic amines. Not only does this cause cancer in the mouth, but can cause salivary gland tumors.

Weakened Immune System

After an organ transplant or treatment for immune system diseases, your immune system can weaken. People with weakened immune systems are at a higher risk for oral cancer, particularly lip cancer. Certain drugs that suppress your immune system can increase the risk of cancer, too. HPV infections are more common in people with weakened immune systems, since their blood cell count varies and antibodies are unable to determine the good and bad cells.

How Can it Be Treated?

Oral cancer is treated the same way as other cancers: removal of the cancerous growth, radiation therapy, and/or chemotherapy to kill the remaining cancer cells.

Have regular dentist appointments and routine cancer screenings from your dentist. It is recommended to have cancer screenings every 3 years for people over 20 and annually for those over 40. Early detection of cancer spots or growths improves the likelihood of successful treatment.

If you would like to learn more, please do not hesitate to give us a call or contact us to book an appointment.

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