You probably know that your dentist likes to see you every six months. That way, he or she can routinely watch for cavities and gum problems. But your dentist also is your first line of defense against something more serious: oral cancer.
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The American Dental Association recommends twice-a-year dental checkups so you can have your teeth cleaned professionally and get a check for early signs of tooth decay and gum issues. But many dentists also use these routine visits to check for signs of cancer.
Oral cancer, which often appears as a growth or sore that does not go away, includes cancers of the lips, tongue, cheek, floor of the mouth, hard and soft palate, and throat. It can become life-threatening if you don’t find it and treat it early.
That’s why a cancer screening is an important part of each checkup, says Todd Coy, DMD, Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Dentistry.
“Evaluation of the oral cavity, including the soft tissues, is part of my exam when patients are in the office for a checkup,” he says. “There are very few downsides to more frequent screening.”
What happens during a dental cancer screening
Before the exam, a dental hygienist will update your medical history. This is to find out if you have a new disease diagnosis or are taking any new medications since your last visit.
The medical history likely will ask questions about risk factors for oral cancer, which include smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. People who smoke and drink alcohol have an even higher risk of oral cancer.
Men are twice as likely to develop oral cancer as women, making it the sixth most common cancer among men.
The hygienist or dentist also will want to know about your current overall health, including any dental concerns. Don’t hesitate to share any questions or concerns you have.
During the cancer screening, your dentist will exam areas that are both inside and outside your mouth.
“A screening exam should include an extra-oral exam of the head and neck as well as an intra-oral exam of the lips, cheeks, tongue, palate, floor of mouth and gum tissues,” Dr. Coy says.
The dentist is looking for any lumps, sores or irregular tissue changes, including discoloration. If he or she finds anything suspicious, such as a lesion, the dentist may recommend a biopsy or refer you to an oral surgeon.
What signs should you watch for?
Common signs and symptoms of oral cancer include:
- Lumps or bumps, rough spots/crusts/or eroded areas on the lips, gums or other areas inside the mouth
- Velvety white, red, or speckled white-and-red patches in the mouth
- Unexplained bleeding in the mouth
- Unexplained numbness or pain/tenderness in any area of the face, mouth or neck
- Persistent sores on the face, neck or mouth that bleed easily and do not heal within two weeks
- Soreness or a feeling that something is caught in the back of the throat
- Difficulty chewing or swallowing, speaking, or moving the jaw or tongue
- Chronic sore throat, hoarseness or voice changes
- Ear pain
- Changes in your “bite”
- Dramatic weight loss
Don’t wait for your checkup
A good rule of thumb is to see a dentist about lesions that do not clear up within two weeks. Dr. Coy says. “Examples would include red or white patches, ulcers, lumps or other growths,” he says.
Difficulty chewing, swallowing or speaking as well as any pain, numbness or change in your bite should also prompt a visit with your dentist or a physician right away.
Don’t wait for a symptom to become painful, Dr. Coy says.
“It is important to understand that pain is not a predictable indicator. So don’t assume that because it doesn’t hurt that it isn’t a problem,” he says.
Having regular dental checkups will help you head off problems with your teeth. But your dentist is also in a good position to catch signs of oral cancer so you can get early treatment. Scheduling dentist appointments every six months is a good routine to follow.