While cancers of the mouth, head, and neck may not get the same media attention as other forms of cancer, they actually take more lives every year than many of them. According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, nearly 9,000 people die from oral cancers every year – that’s one for every hour of every day – and that approximately 53,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with some form of oral cancer annually. Since April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, ZDental would like to tell you more about oral cancers, their risk factors, and how to prevent them.
What is Oral Cancer?
The term “oral cancer” can be used to describe a whole range of cancers including those of the lips, tongue, cheek, floor of the mouth, the hard and soft palate, the sinuses, and the pharynx or throat. Some symptoms of oral cancers include:
- Swelling or lumps in the mouth
- White or red patches in the mouth
- Bleeding, numbness, or pain in the mouth, face and neck
- Mouth sores that do not heal
- Difficulty swallowing
- Chronic sore throat
- Hoarseness or other changes in the voice
Risk Factors for Oral Cancer
While the risk for some types of oral cancer may carry a genetic component, the biggest risk factor is currently tobacco use. Whether you smoke cigarettes, cigars, pipes, or use smokeless tobacco products like chewing tobacco, pouches, or snuff, you significantly increase your risk of developing oral cancer. Although the oral cancer risk among tobacco users can never be overstated, another type of patient has been showing up more frequently in the past decade: young, healthy non-smokers who are being diagnosed with oral cancer in connection with Human Papillomavirus (HPV). This is a sexually transmitted disease that often shows no symptoms, so many people are not even aware that they have it.
Preventing Oral Cancers
Because oral cancer risks like HPV can often go undetected, the best way to prevent it is by asking your dentist for an annual oral cancer screening. These screenings are completely painless and simply involve shining a special light into the mouth and throat to identify the presence of any abnormal cells. This screening can be performed during your regular dental exam, although more tests may be required if anything shows up on your initial screening. In addition the CDC recommends that children aged 11-12 receive two doses of the HPV vaccine, which has been shown to reduce the infection rates of 4 different types of HPV, including two that are associated with the development of oral cancers. Oh, and one more thing – if you smoke or use smokeless tobacco products, quitting now will greatly reduce your risk of all types of oral cancers.
At ZDental, we’re doing everything we can to improve the oral health of our patients in New Jersey and the Philadelphia area. In honor of Oral Cancer Awareness Month, we’d like to encourage you to ask your dentist about oral cancer screenings the next time you go in for a cleaning.