The mouth, or oral cavity, is the specialty area of the dentist. It contains more than just teeth and gums. The lips, tongue, cheeks, palate, along with the underlying salivary glands, lymph nodes, muscles, nerves, blood vessels, bones, temporomandibular joints and numerous other structures are all of interest to the dentist, as this medical professional examines your mouth. The oral cavity represents the beginning of the digestive system. The mouth is often divided into the oral cavity and the oropharynx.
The oral cavity lies below the nasal cavity and in front of the pharynx. The boundaries of the oral cavity include the hard palate and soft palate that form the roof of your mouth, the tongue and the muscles below it, which make up the floor of the mouth and the inner surface of the lips in the front, the cheeks on the sides, and the uvula (the little “punching bag” shaped structure) at the end of your soft palate in the back.
Other parts of your mouth include the gums, teeth and tongue, which contain taste buds. The oral mucosa are the tissues that line the interior of your mouth, while the salivary glands produce saliva. The bottom of your mouth, located under your tongue, is called the floor.
The pharynx, or throat, is a tube about five inches long composed of three parts: the nasopharynx, the oropharynx and the laryngopharynx. The nasopharynx starts behind the nose and lies above the oropharynx, located at the very back of your mouth. The oropharynx includes your tonsils and the bands of tissue around the tonsils, the soft part of the roof of the mouth (soft palate), the back third of the tongue, and the rear wall of the throat.
As you continue down the oropharynx, you reach the laryngopharynx, the space where food and air pass. It contains your epiglottis, a flap that separates the trachea (windpipe) and esophagus (tube from throat to the stomach), and which prevents food and drink from entering the lungs. The larynx, or “voice box,” also resides in this part of the throat and contains your vocal chords.
Oral cancer includes cancers of the mouth and back of the throat (oropharynx). Oral cancer accounts for roughly 3 percent of all cancers diagnosed annually in the United States, or about 49,700 new cases each year. Oral cancer can affect any part of the oral cavity or throat but are most common on the sides and back of the tongue, as it approaches the throat. While looking in your mouth, say "Ahh" to lower the tongue and to give you a view of the oropharynx. Look in your mouth and keep an eye out for small sores or red or white spots inside or around your mouth and throat that last longer than two weeks. Other signs of oral cancer include lumps, pain, tenderness, and trouble chewing, swallowing or speaking.
Oral cancer most often occurs in people over the age of 40 and affects more than twice as many men as it does women. Most oral cancers are related to tobacco use, alcohol use (or both), or infection by the human papilloma virus (HPV). If you have these risk factors or if you see or feel anything suspicious, visit your dentist for an oral cancer evaluation.
Oral Cancer – National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. https://www.nidcr.nih.gov/health-info/oral-cancer/more-info?_ga=2.161907775.2064021984.1532547933-1431145320.1522254305 Accessed July 2018.
Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer Treatment (Adult) (PDQ®) – Patient Version National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/patient/adult/lip-mouth-treatment-pdq#section/_1 Accessed July 2018.
“Oral Cancer.” Mouth Healthy, American Dental Association. https://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/o/oral-cancer Accessed July 2018.