A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Spotting oral cancer in the tongue, mouth and gum

Your dentist isn’t interested only in your teeth. Checking your mouth, gum and tongue for oral cancer is part of your regular dental exam.

Father and daughter brush teeth. Dentist visits check mouth, gums and tongue for signs of oral cancer

Your dentist checks your mouth, gums and tongue for signs of oral cancer including swelling, lesions and discoloration at every dental visit.

“Early detection of oral cancer is important and another good reason to see your dentist every six months,” said Dr. Katherine Simeth,  Family Health Center dentist.

Your dentist examines your neck, lips, gums, tongue, cheeks and the roof and floor of your mouth. They are looking for signs of oral cancer stages such as swelling, lesions and discoloration. This exam includes checking for tongue, gum and mouth cancer.

Risk factors for oral cancers include:

  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Smoking or use of smokeless tobacco products
  • Infection from human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Genetics
  • Lip exposure to UV rays from the sun or tanning beds

What is my dentist looking for?

Suspicious-looking areas or growths are possible signs of mouth, tongue and gum cancer and may include:

  • Red or white patches
  • Hard spots or lumps
  • Rough or crusty areas
  • Sores that don’t heal and bleed easily
  • Chronic injury or trauma to the inner skin of the mouth caused by poorly fitting dentures, broken or sharp teeth, rough surfaces or tooth fillings
  • Poor oral hygiene

Mouth, gum and tongue cancer is most common on the underside of the tongue, floor of the mouth and back of the throat.

Let your dentist know if you have any numbness, pain or tenderness in your mouth; difficulty chewing or swallowing or the feeling that something is caught in your throat. These are potential signs of early stages of cancer.

Examine mouth, gum and tongue for suspicious spots

Your dentist will ask if a recent mouth injury, like eating hot pizza or sharp chips, may have caused an ulcer or lesion. If that’s the case, the dentist will check the spot again in a few weeks.

“Traumatic ulcers usually look different than cancerous spots,” Simeth said. “If an ulcer doesn’t heal or doesn’t look like it was caused by an injury, your dentist will want to do a biopsy to check for oral cancer.”

Oral cancer treatment and beyond

Depending on the type of cancer and where it’s located, your dentist can refer you to an oncologist and an oral surgeon; ear, nose and throat specialist; or a dermatologist.

“Additional dental work should be done before treatment because chemotherapy and radiation can slow healing,” Simeth said.

Sometimes surgery for oral cancer involves removing teeth and part of the jawbone. A dentist can fit you for prosthesis to replace your missing teeth. You’ll also need more frequent dental cleanings every three or four months after oral cancer treatment.

Schedule an appointment with a dentist if it has been more than six months since your last dental exam.

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