Mouth Cancer: Understanding Its Impact and Prevention

Mouth Cancer: Understanding Its Impact and Prevention

Mouth cancer affects a significant number of people in the UK, with over 8,800 new cases diagnosed every year, leading to the death of more than 30% of those affected1. Worldwide, there are more than 650,000 new cases of mouth cancer annually, and the incidence is predicted to get higher in the future. However, research suggests that little is known by the general public about the signs, symptoms, and risk factors for developing mouth cancer.

What is mouth cancer?

Mouth cancer (also known as oral cancer) is a type of cancer that can affect any part of the mouth2, including:

  • Inner lining of the cheeks and lips (buccal mucosa)
  • Front 2/3 of the tongue
  • Gums 
  • Floor of the mouth
  • Roof of the mouth (hard palate) 
  • Area behind the wisdom teeth (retromolar trigone)
  • Lips

Figure 1 Anatomy of the oral cavity3 

Mouth cancer: Risk factors 

While it is true that anyone can develop mouth cancer, certain risk factors can make this more likely, such as1,4:

Tobacco use: This represents the main risk factor for mouth cancer and involves the use of any form of tobacco product. However, while this is recognised as the principal risk factor, non-smokers can still develop mouth cancer too. In fact, up to 25% of mouth cancer cases have no significant risk factors associated with it.

Alcohol consumption: Consuming excessive amounts of alcohol is associated with a fourfold increase in the risk of developing mouth cancer. Drinking and smoking together can make mouth cancer up to 30 times more likely to develop.

Human papillomavirus (HPV): Oral HPV infection, which is transmitted through oral sex, is associated with an increased risk of mouth cancer, and could overtake tobacco and alcohol as the main risk factor in the near future.

Chronic gum disease: Persistent inflammation or irritation of the gum, which can be caused by poor oral hygiene or ill-fitting dentures, may contribute to the development of mouth cancer.

Sun exposure: Prolonged exposure to sunlight without adequate protection can increase the risk of lip cancer.

Poor diet: Excessive intake of unhealthy foods and beverages that lack essential nutrients, along with the insufficient consumption of fruits and vegetables, can increase the risk of developing mouth cancer.

Age: The risk of developing mouth cancer increases with age, particularly after the age of 55.

Gender: Men are twice more likely to develop mouth cancer compared to women; it affects an average of 1 in 55 men, and 1 in 108 women.


Mouth cancer: Its relation with HPV

HPV infection, specifically with high-risk HPV type 164, can cause healthy cells within the oral cavity to become abnormal, which may eventually develop into cancer over time. However, it is important to note that while HPV infection is a risk factor for mouth cancer, not everyone with HPV infection will develop cancer. It is still very important to seek medical attention if there are any persisting symptoms or when something feels unusual in order to prevent possible health complications that could result from late detection and diagnosis.


Mouth cancer: Common signs and symptoms 

The following is a list of the most common signs and symptoms of mouth cancer 1,2:

  • A mouth ulcer that lasts more than 3 weeks
  • A persisting red or white patch inside the mouth 
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Difficulty speaking or persistent hoarseness (croaky voice)
  • A persisting lump inside the mouth, lips, head, or neck 
  • Pain, numbness, or bleeding inside the mouth
  • Unexplained loosening of teeth

It is important to note that the above symptoms are not exclusively caused by mouth cancer, and can be due to a range of other health conditions. However, it is highly advisable to get immediate medical attention if there is any reason for concern or doubt in order to prevent possible health complications. This is because the early detection of mouth cancer is crucial for beating the disease, as treatment during the early stages will be far more effective. However, if it is left undetected or untreated, it could lead to the late discovery of mouth cancer when it has already reached an advanced stage, making treatment much more difficult and resulting in a situation where it can even be life-threatening.


Mouth cancer: Prevention measures 

The best way to protect yourself against mouth cancer is to avoid the key risk factors that increase its chances of developing in the first place. This involves making simple but effective lifestyle choices that can be incorporated into daily life and can play a crucial role in the protection against this potentially life-threatening disease. In addition, having access to preventative and early detection programmes is vital to help prevent the development of mouth cancer and its related complications5.

Some of the risk factors that can be controlled include limiting alcohol consumption and avoiding the use of tobacco products which can significantly help reduce the risk of developing mouth cancer1,5

Other important lifestyle factors to consider include: engaging in regular physical exercise, maintaining good oral hygiene, and eating a healthy balanced diet containing a variety of nutritious foods, including fruits and vegetables, that provide a rich source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

Avoiding excessive sun exposure is also very important in the protection against lip cancer which can be achieved by doing certain things such as using sunblock, wearing a hat, and limiting the time spent under direct sunlight, especially during peak hours in the summer.

Additional measures are aimed at reducing the risk of oral HPV infection, and help offer protection against the development of mouth cancer. These preventative measures include HPV vaccination and the practice of safe sex with the proper use of condoms and dental dams.


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  1. Mouth Cancer Foundation. (2024). Facts and figures about mouth cancer. (Online). Available at: [Accessed 15/03/2024]
  2. National Health Service (NHS). (2023) What is mouth cancer? (Online). Available at: [Accessed 15/11/2023]
  3. National Cancer Institute. Oral cavity. (Online). Available at: [Accessed 15/03/2024]
  4. Cancer Research UK. (2022). Mouth and oropharyngeal cancerrisks and causes. (Online). Available at: [Accessed 15/03/2024]
  5. World Health Organization (WHO). (2023). Comprehensive assessment of evidence on oral cancer prevention released. (Online). Available at: [Accessed 15/03/2024]

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