What are Common Oral Cancer Symptoms?

A non-healing, persistent mouth sore is the most common symptom of oral cancer.

woman with earache
Frequent or persistent earaches can be a sign of oral cancer. Eric Audras/ONOKY/Getty Images

Oral cancer is a type of head and neck cancer that affects the mouth and/or throat. You may have also heard the word oropharyngeal cancer—this is the medical term for describing cancer that arises within the throat, as opposed to cancer that arises within the mouth (sometimes called oral cavity cancer). 

In addition to the throat and mouth, oral cancer may also occur in the lips, the lining of the cheeks, gums, tongue, minor salivary glands, and tonsils.

The salivary glands produce saliva, the first step in food digestion. Your tonsils are mounds of tissue in the throat that help fight infections in the throat. 

Potential Oral Cancer Symptoms

There are a number of possible signs and symptoms associated with oral cancer.

A Sore or Blister in Your Mouth

A sore or blister in the mouth or on the lip that won't heal is the most common symptom of oral cancer. Sores that last longer than two weeks warrant a trip to the doctor. General pain in the mouth, even if you cannot identify a proper source like a sore, also warrants a doctor's visit.

White and Red Patches in the Mouth or Lips

A white or red patch (or a combination of the two) inside the mouth or the lips is a common sign of oral cancer. In the early stages, these white and red patches are warnings of abnormal cells, a pre-malignant condition. If left untreated, they may become cancerous.

In addition, any unusual bleeding requires a doctor's evaluation.

Difficulty Swallowing

This symptom can include difficulty chewing, moving the jaw, speaking or moving the tongue, a sore throat that does not go away, or feeling like there is something stuck in your throat. Of course, it is important to remember that many of these signs and symptoms may be caused by other conditions, a number of which are benign or easily treated.

Still, if one or more of them persist or worsen over a two week period, be sure to see your personal doctor and/or a specialist like an ear, nose, throat (ENT) doctor.

Swelling 

Any swelling or lump formation in the cheek, jaw, or neck may be a sign of oral cancer. 

Change in the Way Teeth Fit Together

This may include dentures not fitting correctly or comfortably or generally loose or painful teeth.

Other Symptoms of Oral Cancer

Other possible signs and symptoms of oral cancer include:

  • Recurring earaches
  • Persistent bad breath
  • A change in your voice
  • Numbness of the tongue, lower lip, or chin
  • Fatigue and/or weight loss

A Word From Verywell

Oral cancer symptoms can often be the signs of other less serious illnesses, so it is important to consult your doctor or dentist if you are experiencing any of these changes in your oral health.

Do not be surprised if your dentist screens you for oral cancer, especially if he does a more thorough screen if you have a history of tobacco use and/or heavy alcohol use.

These are the strongest risk factors for oral cancer.

Sources:

American Cancer Society. (July 2014). Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer.

National Cancer Institute. (July 2009). What You Need to Know About Oral Cancer. 

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