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April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month. Here are the Top 5 Risk Factors associated with Oral Cancer.

Updated: Apr 14, 2021

You know your dentist is looking for cavities during regular check-ups, but you may not realize your dentist can check for cancer at the same time - specifically, oral cancer. Regular visits to your dentist can help you detect such cancers early, and changing a few potentially harmful habits may help reduce your chances of developing them. Read on to find out a few top risk factors.

5 Risk Factors for Oral Cancer

Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

The sexually transmitted disease is now associated with many cases of head and neck cancer (specifically those occurring at the back of the tongue, in or around the tonsils) diagnosed each year in the United States, according to the CDC.

While HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer has risen by 225% over the past two decades, oral cancer linked to the historical etiologic pathways of tobacco and alcohol use has declined by 50%. The ADA’s policy also aligns with support for the HPV vaccine, as 70% of oropharyngeal cancers in the United States are related to HPV, according to the CDC.

HPV vaccination is recommended by the CDC for everyone through the age of 26. However, vaccination for some adults between the ages of 27-45 may be beneficial. We recommend all patients who have not been previously vaccinated, to talk to their primary care physician about the risk of new HPV infection and benefits of vaccination, such as protection from oral cancer.


Men are twice more likely to get oral cancer. The American Cancer Society attributes this to higher rates of alcohol and tobacco use by men, but reports that more men of a younger age are being diagnosed with HPV-related forms of oral cancer.


Most people who are diagnosed with oral cancer are 55 or older, according to the American Cancer Society. HPV-related oral cancers, however, are often diagnosed in people who are younger.


Whether you smoke it or chew it, tobacco use increases your risk dramatically. Smoking can cause oral cancer, as well as cancer in other parts of the body. Pipe smokers are also at a higher risk for developing cancer in their lips. Smokeless tobacco, like chew, can lead to many issues in your mouth, the most serious being cancer of the cheeks, gums, and lips.


According to the American Cancer Society, 7 of 10 oral cancer patients are heavy drinkers. Heavy drinking, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is an average of two drinks a day or more for men and an average of more than one drink a day for women. If you are a heavy drinker and a heavy smoker, your chances of developing oral cancer increase significantly. Be sure to maintain regular dental check-ups so oral cancer screenings can be performed!

Be mindful of symptoms

Your mouth is one of your body's most important early warning systems. In between dental visits, it is important for patients to be aware of the following signs and symptoms, and to see a dental professional if they do not improve or disappear after two-three weeks:

  • A sore, or soreness or irritation that doesn’t go away

  • Red or white patches, pain, tenderness, or numbness inside the mouth or around the lips

  • Hard bone-like and immovable lumps, thickening tissues, rough spots, crusty or eroded areas

  • Difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking, or moving your jaw or tongue

  • A change in the way your teeth fit together when you close your mouth

When it comes to symptoms, keep this two-three week time period in mind, but always call your dentist right away if you have any immediate concerns.

Be aware of the symptoms and risk factors of oral and oropharyngeal cancer. Early detection and treatment may well be the key to a complete recovery.

If you have never had an oral cancer examination, there is no better time to schedule one than during Oral Cancer Awareness Month in April. When you do, be sure to ask that this examination be made a routine part of all of your future dental check-ups.

Dentists and dental hygienists play a critical role in opportunistic screening on all patients despite whether they possess the historical risk factors of using tobacco products or alcohol. Here at Ideal Smiles Bellevue, we screen all our patients for signs of oral cancer with every visit. It’s important to us that we extend our screening practices, both visual and tactile, to every patient in the practice on an annual basis. Visit us at our website, Ideal Smiles Bellevue, today!

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