The Most Common Symptoms of Oral Cancer

Unexplained, Persistent Signs You Should Never Ignore

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 term oropharyngeal cancer, which refers to cancer that arises within the throat, and oral cavity cancer, which occurs specifically in the mouth.

In addition to the throat and mouth, oral cancer can appear on the gums, lips, lining of the cheeks, tongue, salivary glands, and tonsils.

Common Oral Cancer Symptoms

There are a number of symptoms associated with oral cancer. They can vary from person to person and are sometimes blamed on other causes. By knowing the signs and spotting them early, you can often catch cancer when it is more easily treatable.

Among the most common oral cancer symptoms include:

  • A sore or blister in the mouth or on the lip that won't heal is the most common sign of oral cancer. Sores that last longer than two weeks warrant a trip to the doctor. Generalized, persistent pain in the mouth or throat is also something you shouldn’t ignore, even if you can’t pinpoint the source.
  • A white and/or red patch inside the mouth or the lips is a common sign of oral cancer. In the early stages, these white patches (called leukoplakia) and raised, red patches (erythroplakia) are signs of a pre-cancerous condition known as dysplasia. If left untreated, they can worsen and become cancerous. Any unusual bleeding from these patches is a definite sign you should visit your doctor immediately.
  • Any difficulty chewing, moving the jaw, moving the tongue, or having this feeling that something is caught in your throat should be checked by a doctor as soon as possible. While these symptoms can be caused by any number of other conditions, those that last longer than two weeks should warrant concern. Visit your doctor or schedule an appointment with an ear/nose/throat (ENT) specialist.
  • Any swelling or lump formation in the cheek, jaw, or neck should also be checked. In some cases, the formation may be accompanied by an unexplained numbness and/or pain in the area. At other times, there is little, if any, pain.
  • Any changes to the way your teeth fit together as if there was a sudden and unexplained change of jaw alignment. This may include dentures not fitting correctly or comfortably, as well as generally loose or painful teeth. Oral cancer can sometimes cause these issue and deserve a thorough investigation.

Several, less obvious signs are known to occur:recurrent ear aches

  • persistent bad breath
  • a change or hoarseness in your voice
  • slurred speech
  • profound fatigue
  • dramatic and unexplained weight loss

Take Home Messages

Ultimately, there are two words that should raise the red flag if you are experiencing any of these symptoms: persistent and unexplained.

Persistency suggests that the underlying cause, whatever it is, is not going away. Any unexplained symptom, particularly those with sudden onset, should warrant an immediate investigation if only to put your mind at ease. Consult with your doctor or dentist if experiencing any of these changes in your oral health.

And, finally, if you’re a smoker, do not be surprised if your dentist preemptively asks to screen you for oral cancer.

A history of tobacco use, as well as heavy alcohol consumption, are among the highest risk factors for this and other types of cancer.


American Cancer Society. “What Are Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers?” Published online July 16, 2014; last revised August 8, 2016.