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Mouth Cancer

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jan 5, 2023.

What do I need to know about mouth cancer?

Cancer cells can form on your lips or inside your mouth. The most common type of mouth cancer is squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). SCC is a slow growing cancer that usually does not spread. Squamous cells are found in the skin, organs, respiratory tract, and digestive tract.

Mouth Anatomy

What increases my risk for mouth cancer?

  • Tobacco or alcohol
  • Certain foods and drinks, including mate (tea-like beverage)
  • A family history of mouth cancer
  • Conditions such as human papillomavirus (HPV), syphilis, or immunosuppression
  • Oral thrush
  • Radiation, sun exposure, or working with rubber or asbestos

What are the signs and symptoms of mouth cancer?

  • A sore that will not heal
  • A red or white patch in your mouth
  • Pain, tenderness, or numbness on your lips or in your mouth
  • Loose teeth or a change in the way your teeth fit together
  • Pain in or trouble opening your mouth
  • A lump in your mouth or on your neck
  • Trouble swallowing, or a change or loss of taste
  • A cough or sore throat that will not go away, or ear pain

How is mouth cancer diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will check the inside of your cheeks and lips. Your provider will also check your gums, tongue, and the top and bottom of your mouth. Your provider will feel your neck for swollen lymph glands. Tell your provider if you have a personal or family history of cancer. You may also need any of the following:

  • Tissue staining is a procedure to see if the tissue looks normal or abnormal. Dye is placed on the lesions in your mouth to check the reaction.
  • CT or MRI pictures may show nodules, masses, or tissue thickening. You may be given contrast liquid to help the mouth cancer show up better in the pictures. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the healthcare provider if you have any metal in or on your body.
  • A biopsy (sample of mouth tissue) may be checked for cancer.
  • An endoscopy is a procedure used to look directly at the tissues of your mouth, throat, and upper airway. An endoscope is a flexible tube with a light and camera on the end.
    Upper Endoscopy
  • An HPV test may be used to check for certain types of HPV linked to cancer, especially SCC. HPV can lead to mouth cancer, but it is not as common as other cancers linked to HPV. A vinegar liquid is used to help find if genital warts were caused by HPV. The test can be done with or without a Pap smear. A Pap smear checks for cancer or for abnormal cells that can become cancer.

How is mouth cancer treated?

  • Surgery is the preferred treatment for mouth cancer. Surgery is used to remove the cancer cells.
  • Radiotherapy is a procedure that uses radiation used to kill cancer cells and stop the cancer from spreading. It may be used with or without surgery.
  • Chemotherapy is a type of medicine that may be used with or without radiation to kill the cancer cells.
  • Biotherapy are medicines that may boost your immune system making it easier for your body to fight the cancer.

What can I do to manage or prevent mouth cancer?

  • Do not use tobacco products or drink alcohol. These can increase your risk for cancer or make your symptoms worse. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you currently smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol and need help to quit. E-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine. Talk to your healthcare provider before you use these products.
  • Prevent an HPV infection. Some types of HPV can cause or increase your risk for certain cancers, especially SCC. HPV is usually spread through sexual activity. The HPV vaccine is given to females and males, usually at 11 or 12 years of age. It can be given from 9 years through 45 years of age, if needed. It is most effective if given before sexual activity begins. Use a new condom, contraceptive barrier, or dental dam each time you have sex. This includes oral, vaginal, and anal sex.
    Recommended HPV Immunization Schedule
  • Eat healthy foods. Healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, low-fat dairy products, beans, lean meats, and fish. Take small bites, and chew your food well before you swallow. Be especially careful when you eat meat, fruits, and vegetables. A dietitian may help to plan the best meals and snacks for you.
    Healthy Foods
  • Exercise as directed. Exercise may help increase your energy level and appetite. Ask your healthcare provider how much exercise you need and which exercises are best for you.
    Black Family Walking for Exercise

Where can I find support and more information?

  • American Cancer Society
    250 Williams Street
    Atlanta , GA 30303
    Phone: 1- 800 - 227-2345
    Web Address:

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) if:

  • You have trouble breathing.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You are having a hard time swallowing.
  • You have warmth, pain, or redness in your mouth or throat.
  • Your mouth is bleeding and you did not injure it.

When should I call my doctor?

  • You have new or worsening symptoms.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.