a dental professional holding a testing container that contains a pink substance

Oral Cancer Symptoms and Why You Need Regular Screenings

Taking care of your teeth by maintaining good oral hygiene habits is not the only factor in maintaining your oral health. Regular dental checkups and oral cancer screenings are also incredibly important.

Oral cancer is a disease affecting the mouth that can lead to death, and it is on the rise across the globe. But fortunately, if caught early, oral cancer can be treated successfully, and your dentist has the expert skill and training to detect early signs of the disease.

Here’s a look at why regular oral cancer screenings are so important and why you should visit your dentist regularly—not just for dental emergencies.

Why Oral Cancer Screening Tests Are Done

Oral cancer screenings look for signs of mouth cancer and precancerous lesions that could become cancerous. These screenings are done to detect cancer early when there is a greater chance of curing the cancer and having a less invasive treatment.

What Are the Risk Factors?

The risk factors for oral cancer include:

  • Tobacco use, including smoking, using snuff, or chewing dip
  • Chewing betel quid
  • Regularly drinking copious amounts of alcohol
  • A family history of oral cancer
  • Spending extended amounts of time in the sun, which can cause cancer on the lips
  • Some types of human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Being male
  • Being over the age of 50
  • A poor diet

Oral Cancer Symptoms

If you experience any of the following symptoms of oral cancer in your mouth and throat and they don’t disappear after two weeks, you should visit your dentist or doctor right away:

  • Red or white patches
  • A sore or irritation that won’t go away
  • Pain, numbness, or tenderness in the mouth or lips
  • Lump or thickening of tissue
  • Small eroded area
  • Crust or rough spot
  • Difficulty speaking, chewing, swallowing, or moving the tongue or jaw
  • Changes in how your teeth fit together when your mouth is closed
  • Sore throat
  • Hoarseness or a change in voice
  • A feeling of something caught in your throat

Where Can Oral Cancer Appear?

Oral cancer can appear in two areas.

  1. The pharynx—oropharynx—the middle area of the throat that starts at the soft part of the roof of the mouth and continues back into the throat, and includes the:
    • Tonsils
    • Back section of the tongue
    • Base of the tongue, where the tongue attaches to the floor of the mouth
    • Esophagus
  1. The oral cavity, which includes the:
    • Lips
    • Inside of the lips and cheeks
    • Salivary glands
    • Teeth
    • Gums
    • Floor of mouth
    • Roof of mouth
    • Front two-thirds of the tongue

What Happens During A Screening Test

During a dental exam, your dentist will ask if you have any changes to your medical history and if you have any new or unusual symptoms. And when screening for oral cancer, they will do a visual and a physical exam.

Visual Exam

Your dentist will examine your face, neck, lips, and inside your nose and oral cavity for visible signs of oral cancer, such as swelling, bumps, patches of color, asymmetries, ulcerations, and other abnormalities.

During the visual exam, your dentist will use a light and mirror, along with a tongue depressor to hold your tongue down. And while looking in the back of your mouth, they may ask you to go “Ahh” to show areas of your throat that are difficult to see otherwise.

Your dentist may also use other tools to examine the throat, tonsils, gums, inner cheeks, roof of the mouth, and under the tongue.

Physical Exam

Your dentist will feel for lumps and abnormalities on the head, neck, cheeks, jaw, under the chin, and inside of the oral cavity. Your dentist may also ask you to swallow while examining your throat.

Oral Cancer Screening Devices

Along with a light, mirror, tongue depressor, and other typical equipment, your dentist may also use specialized examination tools during oral cancer screenings, such as:

  • The Oral CDx—a brush that gently and painlessly removes cells for cancer testing.
  • A VELscope—which uses visible blue light to identify suspicious oral tissues. With this light, healthy tissue appears dark and abnormal tissue appears white.
  • An Orascoptic DK—which releases a mouth rinse that is moderately acidic and helps with the visual inspection of tissues.
  • A specialized dye to help see signs of oral cancer—abnormal cells may take up the dye and appear blue.
  • A nasopharyngolaryngoscope, which is a flexible fiber optic camera that goes through the nose and down the back of the throat to examine the larynx and pharynx.

After Your Oral Cancer Screening

If your dentist notices anything that looks suspicious during your oral screening, they may ask you to return for another screening in a few weeks to see if anything has changed. And even if nothing abnormal is found, your dentist may ask you to schedule routine screenings in the future, especially if you have a higher risk of developing oral cancer.

Your dentist may also refer you for further tests or take a biopsy to determine the cause of certain symptoms, but this is not necessarily a cancer diagnosis.


Along with taking care of your oral health with regular brushing and flossing, you can help prevent oral cancer by taking care of your overall physical health and visiting your dentist for regular checkups and screenings.

The Importance of Routine Screening

Routine screening allows for early detection of oral cancer in those who may not have any symptoms, which can result in better treatment outcomes and increased survival rates.

Early diagnosis also reduces treatment-related health problems and improves the overall quality of life since a less invasive and aggressive treatment may be used.

Oral cancer screening takes five minutes, so don’t hesitate to ask for a screening or agree to one if you dentist recommends it at your next dental appointment.