Mouth cancer rises: Causes, symptoms and how to get a check-up for it

Doctors may be able to diagnose mouth cancer through saliva tests (Getty Images)
Doctors may be able to diagnose mouth cancer through saliva tests (Getty Images)

Cases of mouth cancer have risen by more than a third in the past decade, to a record high, the Times has reported.

Sexually transmitted viruses such as the human papillomavirus, as well as smoking and drinking, are the most common causes, according to the Oral Health Foundation, a public health charity.

It has been found that 8,864 people in the UK were diagnosed with the disease last year, up 36 per cent on a decade ago. Of them, 3,034 died within a year, an increase in deaths of 40 per cent in the past 10 years.

Dr Nigel Carter, the chief executive of the Oral Health Foundation, said: “While most cancers are on the decrease, cases of mouth cancer continue to rise at an alarming rate. Traditional causes like smoking and drinking alcohol to excess are quickly being caught up by emerging risk factors like the human papillomavirus.

“The stigma around mouth cancer has changed dramatically. It’s now a cancer that really can affect anybody. We have seen first-hand the devastating affect mouth cancer can have on a person’s life. It changes how somebody speaks, it makes eating and drinking more difficult, and often changes a person’s physical appearance.

“We urge everybody to become more ‘mouth-aware’ by being able to recognise the early warning signs of mouth cancer and to be aware of the common causes.”

But, what is mouth cancer, what causes it and what are the symptoms?

Here’s what you need to know.

What are the causes of mouth cancer?

Factors that can increase your risk of mouth cancer include:

  • Tobacco use of any kind, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco and snuff;

  • Heavy alcohol use;

  • Excessive sun exposure to your lips;

  • A sexually transmitted virus called human papillomavirus (HPV);

  • A weakened immune system.

What are the symptoms of mouth cancer?

In the early stages of the disease, mouth cancer symptoms can be subtle and painless, making it easy to miss. These include a mouth ulcer that doesn’t heal within three weeks, white or red patches in the mouth, or unusual lumps or swellings in the mouth, neck or head. Other symptoms include a persistent hoarseness in the voice.

Other signs and symptoms of mouth cancer may include:

  • A lip or mouth sore that doesn’t heal;

  • A white or reddish patch on the inside of your mouth;

  • Loose teeth;

  • A growth or lump inside your mouth;

  • Mouth pain;

  • Ear pain;

  • Difficult or painful swallowing.

What are the types of mouth cancer?

Mouth cancer is categorised by the type of cell that cancer (carcinoma) starts to grow inside. Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type of mouth cancer, accounting for nine out of 10 cases. The cells are found in many areas of the body, including the inside the mouth, as well as the skin.

One in three mouth cancers are found on the tongue and 23 per cent are found on the tonsils. The other places they can occur include the lips, gums, inside of the cheeks and the floor and roof of the mouth.

Less common types of mouth cancer include:

  • Adenocarcinoma, which is cancers that develop inside the salivary glands;

  • Sarcoma, which grows from abnormalities in bone, cartilage, muscle or other tissue;

  • Oral malignant melanoma, where cancer starts in the cells that produce skin pigment or colour (melanocytes). These appear as very dark, mottled swellings that often bleed;

  • Lymphoma, which grows from cells usually found in lymph glands, but can also grow in the mouth.

How can I get my symptoms checked out?

In order to determine if you’ve got oral cancer, your doctor or dentist will perform a physical exam to inspect areas of irritation, such as sores or white patches. If they suspect something is abnormal, they may conduct a biopsy where they take a small sample of the area for testing.

The main methods used to do a biopsy in cases of suspected mouth cancer are:

  • an incision or punch biopsy;

  • a fine needle aspiration with cytology;

  • a nasendoscopy;

  • a panendoscopy.

If your biopsy confirms you might have cancer, you may then have to undergo further tests to see if it has spread further throughout your body, including:

  • an X-ray;

  • an ultrasound scan;

  • a MRI scan;

  • a CT scan;

  • a PET scan.