Oral Cancer

What is it?

Oral cancer is cancer of the mouth. Tobacco and alcohol use are among the strongest risk factors for oral cancer.

Oropharyngeal cancer refers to cancer of the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils. The human papillomavirus (HPV) causes most oropharyngeal cancers. Click here for more information on HPV and oropharyngeal cancer.

A closeup of a man in his 30s getting an oral exam. A health care provider is facing the man and slightly out of focus. She is holding a tongue depressor in the man’s mouth and holding a magnifying scope with the other hand.

Get checked

You may already be getting checked for oral cancer without even realizing it.

All ages: Oral cancer exam

Your dentist may be able to detect some oral precancers and cancers early. Visit your dentist every six months and ask for an oral cancer exam.

Find the screenings you need

This information will help you and your health care provider decide which cancer screenings you need, when to begin screening and how often you should be screened.

Get Started

Know your risk

You are at increased risk for oral cancer if you:

  • Chew or smoke tobacco.
  • Drink alcohol in excess.
  • Are exposed to sunlight for long periods of time.
  • Have an immune system that has been weakened by certain medications.
  • Have a certain type of HPV (increases risk for oropharyngeal cancer).

Reduce your risk

You may reduce your risk for oral cancer through these lifestyle-related modifications:

Icon illustration of a cigarette with smoke coming from its tip and a large X over it indicating no smoking.

Do not smoke or use tobacco in any way.

If you do, quit.

Icon illustration of a wine bottle and a wine glass with a large X over it indicating not to drink alcohol.

Avoid or limit alcohol.

To reduce your risk of cancer, it’s best to avoid alcohol completely. If you do choose to drink, limit your drinking to no more than one drink a day if you were assigned female at birth or no more than two drinks a day if you were assigned male at birth.

Icon illustration of a need and syringe.

Get vaccinated against HPV.

All young people ages 9-12 should get vaccinated against HPV. Vaccination is also recommended for teens and young adults up to age 26 if not fully vaccinated when younger.

An icon illustration of an apple and a carrot.

Eat lots of fruits and vegetables.

Icon illustration of the sun with a large X over it indicating no sun exposure.

Avoid being in the sun, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when sunlight is strongest.

Icon illustration of lips next to a tube of lip balm.

Always use lip balm with SPF 30 or higher with UVA and UVB protection.

Reapply every two hours if you stay in the sun, even on cloudy days. Protect your skin from excessive sun exposure year-round, not just in the summertime.

Icon illustration of a magnifying glass.

Visit your dentist every six months and ask for an oral cancer exam.

Signs & symptoms

If you notice any of these symptoms, take action and talk with your dentist or health care provider right away:

  • White or red patches on lips, gums, tongue or mouth lining
  • A lump which can be felt inside the mouth or on the neck
  • Pain or difficulty chewing, swallowing or speaking
  • Hoarseness lasting a long time
  • Numbness or pain in any area of the mouth that does not go away
  • Swelling of the jaw
  • Loosening of teeth
  • Changes in how dentures fit the mouth
  • Bleeding in the mouth
  • A sore on the lips or in the mouth that does not go away
  • An earache that does not go away

Treatment options

Treatment depends on the type and stage of the cancer and your medical condition.


Surgery is a common treatment to remove the cancer and surrounding tissue.


This is a treatment that uses drugs to kill cancer cells. It may be used alone or in combination with another therapy before or after surgery.

Radiation therapy

This treatment uses high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. It may be used alone or in combination with another therapy before or after surgery.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy can be a drug or antibody that targets the proteins that affect how cancer cells grow, divide and spread. It may be used alone or in combination before or after surgery.

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