Oral cancer risk factors and prevention

Am I at Risk for Oral Cancer?

Most oral cancer is preventable. However, there are certain risk factors that make you more likely than others to get it. A risk factor is anything that affects your chance of getting a disease. Some risk factors are preventable and some are not, such as your family history. But just because you have one or more risk factors does not mean you will get oral cancer. Or you could have no risk factors and still get the disease. According to the American Dental Association, 25 percent of people with oral cancer had no known risk factors prior to getting the disease.

If you agree with any of the following bolded statements, you are at an increased risk for oral cancer. Each time you agree with the statement, ask yourself if you are doing all you can to control that risk factor. It may seem hard, but your efforts to change your lifestyle can have a big payoff in terms of your health and quality of life. Ask your dentist to help you think of ways you can lower your risk for oral cancer.

I Use or Have Used Tobacco Products

All of these ways of using tobacco greatly increase your chance of getting oral cancer.

  • Smoking cigarettes, cigars, or a pipe

  • Chewing tobacco

  • Dipping snuff

Tobacco use is a serious risk factor. About 75 percent of all people who get oral cancer use tobacco. This is because tobacco contains substances called carcinogens, which harm cells in your mouth. After a while, these damaged cells may turn into cancer. The younger you were when you started using tobacco and the longer you’ve used it, the greater your risk.

I Drink or Used to Drink a Lot of Alcohol

Drinking excessive alcohol increases your risk of oral cancer. If you drink a lot of alcohol and use tobacco products, you have the greatest risk of getting oral cancer. It is thought that alcohol makes the cells in your mouth more susceptible to changes. These changes can lead to cancer, especially when combined with tobacco use.

I Spend a Lot of Time in the Sun

Exposure to sun increases your risk for lip cancer. People who spend a long time outdoors for work or play have the greatest risk for developing lip cancer.

I Have a History of Human Papillomavirus Infection

Human papillomaviruses (HPV) are a group of more than 100 related viruses. Most HPV viruses cause warts on various parts of the body, but some are also involved with different types of cancer. For example, almost all cancers of the cervix are related to certain HPV viruses. These same HPV virus types are also linked to some oral and oropharyngeal cancers. Currently, 20 to 30 percent of all oral cancer is associated with an HPV infection.

I Have Erythroplakia or Leukoplakia

Erythroplakias are raised, red patches that can grow on the inside of your mouth. The red patch can turn into cancer. Up to 70 percent of these lesions are found to be cancerous or will develop into cancer later.

Leukoplakias are white patches that can grow inside your mouth or throat. If you use tobacco and drink a lot of alcohol, you may notice these patches. About 25 percent of these lesions are cancerous or may develop into cancer if not treated. Avoiding tobacco and alcohol can help lower your chances of getting leukoplakia—and oral cancer. Having your dentist regularly check your mouth can help you make sure that a leukoplakia is treated before it develops into cancer.

I Don’t Care for My Teeth

Changing these controllable risk factors will help you offset other risks you cannot control:

  • Not taking good care of your teeth and gums.

  • Not getting enough vitamin A in your diet. A diet rich in vitamin A includes fruits and vegetables.

I Have Risk Factors I Can’t Control

There are several risk factors that you cannot control. These risk factors include:

Age: Oral cancer is typically a disease affecting older people, usually because of their longer exposure to other risk factors. Ninety percent of all oral cancers occur in people older than age 45.

Gender: Oral cancer strikes men twice as often as it does women.

Race: African-Americans are one-third more likely to develop oral cancer than the white population.

Heredity: Some people are genetically more prone to develop oral cancer. Talk with your dentist about whether you have this risk factor.



“Can Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers Be Prevented?” American Cancer Society. February 26, 2013. http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/OralCavityandOropharyngealCancer/DetailedGuide/oral-cavity-and-oropharyngeal-cancer-prevention Accessed 2013.

“What Are the Risk Factors for Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers?” American Cancer Society. February 26, 2013. http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/OralCavityandOropharyngealCancer/DetailedGuide/oral-cavity-and-oropharyngeal-cancer-risk-factors Accessed 2013.

“Oral Cancer.” Mouth Healthy, American Dental Association. http://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/o/oral-cancer Accessed 2013.

“What Are Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers?” American Cancer Society. February 26, 2013. http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/OralCavityandOropharyngealCancer/DetailedGuide/oral-cavity-and-oropharyngeal-cancer-what-is-oral-cavity-cancer Accessed 2013.

“Demographics and Occurrence of Oral and Pharyngeal Cancers, the Outcomes, the Trends, the Challenge.” S. Silverman Jr. Journal of the American Dental Association. November 2001, vol. 132, pp. 7S-11S. http://jada.ada.org/content/132/suppl_1/7S.full Accessed 2013.

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