14 Dec
Mouth cancer screening - salivary gland exam.

Screening for Mouth and Throat Cancers

Mouth and throat cancers affect the oral cavity (mouth) and the oropharynx (back of the throat). They can occur in different parts of the mouth and throat, such as the lips, tongue, tonsils, and voice box. If not detected and treated early, mouth and throat cancers can spread to other parts of the body and affect the quality of life and survival of the patients.

One way to detect them is to perform a visual and physical examination of the mouth and the throat, and look for any abnormal changes in the tissues, such as ulcers, red or white patches, or lumps. Your doctor or dentist may recommend a screening if you are at an increased risk of oral cancer, or it may simply be a part of your routine dental exam. This blog post discusses common symptoms, causes, risk factors of mouth and throat cancers and benefits of regular screening and early detection.

What is Oral Cancer Screening?

An oral cancer screening involves a visual and physical exam of the oral cavity and connected tissues for the purpose of detecting signs of mouth or throat cancer or precancerous conditions in the mouth.

This screening is normally performed as part of a comprehensive dental examination at your first visit and during semi-annual dental hygiene appointments thereafter. During these dental checkups a dentist can screen for any indications of cancer and detect precancerous lesions that may lead to cancer early when they are easiest to remove and most likely to be cured. This will ultimately increase the treatment options, improve the chances for recovery and, in some cases, help prevent mouth and throat cancers altogether.


Screening For Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers

See how screening during dental checkups can help avoid the serious consequences of oral and throat cancer.

Facts and Common Symptoms

What are Mouth and Throat Cancers?

Mouth and throat cancers, also known as oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers, are conditions that involve the abnormal growth of cells in the mouth or the throat. These cancers can occur in various parts, such as the lips, tongue, gums, roof of the mouth, or even in the back of the throat.

Important facts about mouth (oral cavity) cancer

  • Oral cancer is twice as common in men than in women
  • The incidence of oral cancer increases with age, particularly for 60-65 year olds
  • Most commonly affected sites are the side of the tongue and floor of the mouth
  • Risk factors: tobacco and smokeless tobacco use, betel quid/areca nut use, alcohol, immunosuppression, low socio-economic factors
  • Oral cavity cancers are 8th most common cancer in males and the 15th in females. 94% of all oral malignancies are squamous cell carcinomas.

Facts about throat (oropharyngeal) cancer

  • Is twice as common in men than in women
  • Patients are affected at a younger age <50 years old
  • Most commonly affected sites are the base of the tongue and the tonsils
  • Risk factors: about 70 % of throat cancer are caused by Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.
  • Throat cancer has better prognosis than mouth cancer

What Are Common Symptoms of Oral Cancer?

  • Non-healing, persistent mouth ulcers or sores
  • White or red patches on the oral mucosa (leukoplakia and erythroplakia)
  • Presence of lumps or bumps or growths in the mouth or neck
  • Pain or difficulty swallowing
  • Unexplained changes in voice or hoarseness
  • Chronic sore throat or cough
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Earache
  • Trismus (difficulty opening the mouth and muscle spasm in the jaw joint)

If you notice any of these symptoms, it is essential to consult a healthcare professional for further evaluation and potential screening tests.

Patient with throat pain - oral cancer screening candidate.

Causes and Risk Factors of Mouth and Throat Cancers

Mouth and throat cancers can be caused by various factors and certain risk factors increase the chances of developing the disease.

  • Tobacco use whether through smoking or smokeless forms, is one of the leading causes of mouth and throat cancer. The harmful substances present in tobacco can damage the cells in the mouth and throat, increasing the risk of cancer development. The proportion of smokers with oral carcinoma is 2-3 times greater than the general population, with pipe and cigar smoking carrying a greater risk than cigarette smoking. The risk increases with the increase in the number of cigarettes smoked per day and the duration of smoking.
  • Excessive alcohol consumption is another significant risk factor for mouth and throat cancers. Alcohol can irritate the cells in the mouth and throat, potentially leading to the growth of cancerous cells over time. It is especially well established that alcohol and tobacco abuse over long periods will significantly increase susceptibility.
  • Oncogenic viruses such as Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection can increase the risk of developing oral cancer. HPV infection can affect the cells in the mouth and throat, leading to cancerous growths. More than 70 % of oropharyngeal cancers are caused by HPV. There are about 200 HPV types but not all are oncogenic (able to cause cancer). HPV is transmitted by sexual and non-sexual contact, contact with infected saliva, breastfeeding, and perinatally from mother to child.
  • Exposure to certain chemicals or toxins, such as phenolic agents increase the risk of oral, oropharyngeal, and nasopharyngeal cancer.
    Immunosuppression - patients with AIDS or those undergoing immunosuppressive therapy for malignancies or organ transplants are at increased risk, especially when smoking and/or alcohol are involved.
  • Age and gender can be risk factors as well. Men are twice as likely to suffer from mouth and throat carcinomas than women. Throat cancer affects younger patients, often younger than 50 years of age, whereas mouth cancer affects patients in the later stages of life, ages 60-65.

Importance of Early Detection and Screening

As with any type of cancer, effectiveness of treatments for mouth or throat cancer depends on the stage of the cancer, with early, localized lesions being much more susceptible to treatment and yielding a far better long-term prognosis for the patient.

Many oral squamous cell carcinomas have been documented to be associated with or preceded by a precancerous lesion, especially leukoplakia or erythroplakia. Thus, early biopsy of such lesions is key, especially when these are located on the lateral border of the tongue or the floor of the mouth. Detecting these at an early stage significantly increases the chances of successful treatment and improved prognosis

Some of the key benefits of early detection of mouth or throat cancers include:

  • Timely Treatment: When the cancer is detected early, treatment can begin promptly, preventing it from spreading or becoming more aggressive.
  • More Treatment Options: Early detection allows for a wider range of treatment options, including less invasive procedures and targeted therapies.
  • Increased Survival Rates: Studies have shown that patients who were diagnosed with mouth or throat cancer and started treatment early had higher survival rates compared to those diagnosed at later stages.

Oral Cancer Screening During Dental Checkups

The screening process for detection of mouth or throat cancer happens at every new patient comprehensive exam and then subsequently at the recall hygiene appointments. This exam is usually done by the dentist and the dental hygienists.

The exam involves visual inspection and palpation of the face and neck, and then an inspection of the mouth, and the throat. You may recall your dentist asking you to stick your tongue, then move it to the sides and up, out so she can inspect it. Anytime a white or red patch is detected on the side of the tongue or floor of the mouth, that has not resolved within 2 weeks, the dentist may recommend a tissue biopsy to rule out cancer.


Mouth and throat cancer are serious health concerns that can be prevented by adopting a healthy lifestyle including avoiding tobacco products and limiting alcohol consumption as well as making certain lifestyle modifications such as maintaining healthy diet and nutrition, good oral hygiene and undergoing regular semi-annual dental check-ups.

Screening for mouth or throat cancer during the comprehensive or periodic dental checkups, plays a crucial role in early detection and better treatment outcomes of these serious conditions. The patients can benefit from early diagnosis and treatment and take proactive steps to protect their health which can improve their chances of survival and recovery.

Are you at an increased risk of oral cancer or have signs of a potential problem in your mouth or throat?

If you notice red or white patches, pain, tenderness or numbness in your mouth or lips, a lump, changes in the way your teeth fit together or trouble moving normally mobile tissue, call our dental office to schedule a dental checkup with one of our dental hygienists or Dr. Tufa. We are here to help!


Heni Tufa

Dr. Tufa is a general dentist in Acton, MA who is also an Invisalign Provider and certified Botox dentist.