So what are the signs and symptoms?
- Ulcers that do not heal within 3 weeks
- Lumps or swellings with no obvious cause (such as trauma caused by burns/sharp food)
- Bleeding from the mouth or throat with no obvious cause
- Red/white patches inside the mouth or changes in texture of the soft tissues
- Teeth that suddenly become loose or dentures that suddenly stop fitting properly
- Difficulty or pain when swallowing/speaking/moving jaw
- Hoarseness or changes to the voice
- Persistent coughing or feeling like something is ‘stuck’ in the throat
- Numbness/tingling of the lips or tongue
- Unexplained weight loss
That’s a lot to look for! However, it is important to remember: our mouths are prone to all sorts of trauma such as hot or sharp food; bleeding gums and loose teeth can be caused by gingival disease or periodontal disease; many people are susceptible to ulcers that usually resolve in less than 3 weeks; dentures become loose over time and should be assessed every 5 years for a possible reline; and pain is usually caused by toothache or an abscess.
This is why it is important to know your normal. If you regularly check your own soft tissues and notice something out of the ordinary, you should call your dentist for a second opinion.
What are the associated risk factors?
The most recognised risk factors are smoking, alcohol and drug use. However lesser known risk factors are poor diet and the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).
HPV is the name given to a group of very common viruses. They affect the skin, have more than 100 different types and are easily transmitted from person to person. The reason that HPV is a risk factor for mouth cancer is because certain types of HPV can affect the mouth and throat and potentially cause cancer in these areas. HPV-16, the same virus associated with cervical cancer, is also linked to cancer in younger people in good health and with no history of either smoking or drinking. These HPV cancers are the fastest increasing type of mouth cancer. Fortunately, HPV-related cancers appear to be more responsive to treatment and the survival rate is much better than non-HPV mouth cancer.
HPV infections are successfully fought off by the body’s immune system and often resolve without treatment, even high-risk HPV infections.