If you have a bleeding mouth sore or pain that lingers for more than a couple of weeks, don’t ignore it.
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“We see patients all the time who had an irritation around their tooth that ends up being squamous cell cancer, which may have been bothering them for up to a year,” says Brian Burkey, MD, an ear, nose and throat specialist.
He says some oral cancers are not obvious to us as we look in a mirror. “They can be behind the teeth or under the tongue and patients may not notice them,” Dr. Burkey says.
The good news is that when picked up early, these cancers are highly, highly curable, Dr. Burkey says. “Early detection is the key.”
Take note of these 7 symptoms
It’s important not to ignore these symptoms, which could signal medical problems or, in limited cases, oral cancer:
- Nagging mouth pain.
- Bleeding sore in the mouth that won’t heal and lasts for more than two weeks.
- Swelling in the neck that lasts for more than two weeks.
- An area in your mouth that becomes discolored and stays that way.
- A lump or thickening in your cheek that doesn’t go away.
- Numbness in your tongue or another part of your mouth.
- Constant feeling of something caught in your throat.
While not an exhaustive list, these are symptoms that can slip under the radars of our busy lives. That’s why it’s important to notice when they don’t resolve.
“If symptoms last for more than two weeks, get them checked out by a doctor or dentist,” Dr. Burkey says.
Get regular oral cancer screenings
Besides watching for any symptoms, it’s important to get regular oral cancer screenings to catch problems at their earliest stages.
What you need to know:
- Who does the screenings? Your dentist is often your first line of defense when screening for oral cancer, but oral surgeons and ear, nose and throat specialists can also perform screenings.
- How often do I need a screening? While there are no official recommendations for screenings, Dr. Burkey advises people to get screenings during their usual dental checkups, twice a year.
- Do I need to request a screening from my dentist or are they routine? Dr. Burkey says screenings are generally part of your normal dental exam, but he still recommends that you ask your dentist.
- How long to screenings take? Oral cancer screenings takes less than 10 minutes. Your doctor or dentist will perform a visual screening and feel the tongue looking for abnormal color and firm lesions. You also fill out an information form so that the doctors/dentists can pay close attention to any specific areas of concern.
- Do the screenings hurt? No, they are generally painless.
How to reduce your risk
Here are ways to lower your risk of getting oral and head and neck cancers:
- Quit tobacco. About 90 percent of people with oral cancer use tobacco, and their risk increases with the amount and length of time they use. “This is just one of many health reasons to quit — and to get help if you need it,” Dr. Burkey says. Tobacco is most closely associated with ‘oral cavity’ cancer specifically, which affects the mouth, including lips, teeth and gums.
- Take precautions against HPV. There is a dramatic rise in oropharyngeal cancer, or cancer in the tonsil and base of tongue associated with the human papilloma virus (HPV). A person cannot see this area themselves, so finding it requires an exam from an ear, nose and throat physician. HPV is a sexually transmitted disease and is preventable with a vaccine and/or appropriate safe sex precautions, depending on one’s age.
- Drink alcohol in moderation. Though less a risk factor than those above, alcohol use can also increase your risk of oral cancers.
- Limit time in the sun. You want to protect your face to combat skin cancer, but in particular, don’t forget to protect your lips with sunscreen. They are often forgotten but they need protection too. If you work outside, try to avoid being in the midday sun. You should also wear a hat that shades your face whenever possible.