Mouth cancer, also known as oral cancer, is where a tumour develops in a part of the mouth. It may be on the surface of the tongue, the inside of the cheeks, the roof of the mouth (palate), the lips or gums.
Tumours can also develop in the glands that produce saliva, the tonsils at the back of the mouth, and the part of the throat connecting your mouth to your windpipe (pharynx). However, these are less common.
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Symptoms of mouth cancer
The symptoms of mouth cancer include:
- mouth ulcers that are painful and do not heal within several weeks
- unexplained, persistent lumps in the mouth or the neck that do not go away
- unexplained loose teeth or sockets that do not heal after extractions
- unexplained, persistent numbness or an odd feeling on the lip or tongue
- sometimes, white or red patches on the lining of the mouth or tongue These can be early signs of cancer, so they should also be checked
- changes in speech, such as a lisp
See a GP or dentist if these symptoms do not get better within 3 weeks, particularly if you drink or smoke.
Find out more about the symptoms of mouth cancer.
Types of mouth cancer
Mouth cancer is categorised by the type of cell the cancer (carcinoma) starts to grow in.
Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type of mouth cancer, accounting for 9 out of 10 cases.
Squamous cells are found in many areas of the body, including the inside of the mouth and in the skin.
Less common types of mouth cancer include:
- adenocarcinoma, which is cancers that develop inside the salivary glands
- sarcoma, which grows from abnormalities in bone, cartilage, muscle or other tissue
- oral malignant melanoma, where cancer starts in the cells that produce skin pigment or colour (melanocytes). These appear as very dark, mottled swellings that often bleed
- lymphoma, which grows from cells usually found in lymph glands, but they can also grow in the mouth
What causes mouth cancer?
Things that increase your risk of developing mouth cancer include:
- smoking or using tobacco in other ways, such as chewing tobacco
- drinking alcohol
- infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV) – HPV is the virus that causes genital warts
Find out more about the causes of mouth cancer.
Who's affected by mouth cancer?
Mouth cancer is the 6th most common cancer in the world, but it's much less common in the UK.
Around 8,300 people are diagnosed with mouth cancer each year in the UK, which is about 1 in every 50 cancers diagnosed.
More than 2 in 3 cases of mouth cancer develop in adults over the age of 55. Only 1 in 8 (12.5%) happen in people younger than 50.
Men are more likely to get mouth cancer than women. This may be because, on average, men tend to drink more alcohol than women.
Mouth cancer can develop in younger adults. HPV infection is thought to be linked with the most mouth cancers that happen in younger people.
Treating mouth cancer
There are three main treatment options for mouth cancer, including:
- surgery to remove the cancerous cells, along with a tiny bit of the surrounding normal tissue or cells to ensure the cancer is completely removed
- radiotherapy – where beams of radiation are directed at the cancerous cells
- chemotherapy – where powerful medicines are used to kill cancerous cells
These treatments are often used in combination. For example, surgery may be followed by a course of radiotherapy to help prevent the cancer returning.
As well as trying to cure mouth cancer, treatment will focus on preserving important functions of the mouth, such as breathing, speaking and eating. Maintaining the appearance of your mouth will also be a high priority.
Find out more about treating mouth cancer.
Complications of mouth cancer
Mouth cancer and its treatment can cause complications. It can affect the appearance of your mouth and cause problems with speaking and swallowing (dysphagia).
Dysphagia can be a serious problem. If small pieces of food enter your airways when you try to swallow and the food become lodged in your lungs, it could lead to a chest infection, known as aspiration pneumonia.
Find out more about the complications of mouth cancer.
Preventing mouth cancer
The 3 most effective ways of preventing mouth cancer from happening, or stopping it from coming back after successful treatment, are:
- not smoking or using tobacco in other ways, such as not chewing tobacco
- ensuring you do not drink more than the recommended weekly guideline for alcohol
- eating a healthy, balanced diet that includes fresh vegetables (particularly tomatoes), citrus fruits, olive oil and fish
The NHS recommends you drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week. If you drink as much as 14 units a week, it's best to spread it evenly over 3 or more days.
Find out about how to cut down on alcohol.
It's also important that you have regular dental check-ups. A dentist can often spot the early stages of mouth cancer.
Find out more about how to find an NHS dentist.
The outlook for mouth cancer can vary depending on which part of your mouth is affected and whether it has spread from your mouth into surrounding tissue. The outlook is better for mouth cancer that affects the lip, tongue or oral cavity.
If mouth cancer is diagnosed early, a complete cure is often possible in up to 9 in 10 cases using surgery alone.
Advances in surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy have resulted in much improved cure rates.
Overall, around 6 in 10 people with mouth cancer will live for at least 5 years after their diagnosis, and many will live much longer without the cancer returning.
Head and neck cancers
Mouth cancer is a type of cancer that comes under the umbrella term "cancers of the head and neck".
Other types of head and neck cancer include:
- cancer of the larynx – the voice box
- cancer of the nasopharynx – the area at the back of the nose that forms the top part of the throat (pharynx)
- cancer of the oropharynx – the part of the throat that is directly behind the mouth
- cancer of the hypopharynx – the part of the throat that is directly behind the larynx
- cancer of the thyroid gland – a butterfly-shaped gland on either side of the windpipe
- cancer of the nose and sinuses
- cancer of the oesophagus – the food pipe
Video: mouth cancer
In this video, a consultant oral and maxillofacial surgeon, talks about mouth cancer.
Media review due: 1 July 2024
Page last reviewed: 14 October 2019
Next review due: 14 October 2022