Mouth cancer 


Mouth cancer

Carrie Newlands, consultant oral and maxillofacial surgeon, talks about the causes and symptoms of mouth cancer.

Media last reviewed: 09/07/2012

Next review due: 09/07/2014

Head and neck cancers

Mouth cancer is a type of cancer that comes under the umbrella term 'cancers of the head and neck'. Other types of head and neck cancers include:

Mouth cancer, also known as oral cancer, is where an abnormal group of cells (tumour) develops on the surface of the tongue, mouth, lips or gums.

Less commonly, it can occur in the salivary glands, tonsils and the part of the throat that leads from your mouth to your windpipe (the pharynx).

Symptoms of mouth cancer include:

  • one or more mouth ulcers that do not heal
  • red, or red and white, patches on the lining of your mouth or tongue
  • a swelling in your mouth that lasts for more than three weeks

Types of mouth cancer

Healthcare professionals categorise cancers by the type of cells the cancer first develops in.

Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type of mouth cancer, accounting for 9 out of 10 cases. Squamous cells are found in many places around the body, including the inside of the mouth and under the skin.

Squamous cell carcinomas are also a common cause of skin cancers.

Less common types of mouth cancer include:

  • oral malignant melanoma - where the cancer starts in cells called melanocytes, which help give skin its colour
  • adenocarcinomas - cancers that develop inside the salivary glands

What causes mouth cancer?

Mouth cancer occurs when something goes wrong with the normal cell lifecycle, causing them to grow and reproduce uncontrollably.

Risk for developing mouth cancer include:

  • smoking
  • drinking alcohol (smokers who are also heavy drinkers have a much higher risk compared to the population at large)
  • infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is the virus that causes genital warts
  • a diet that contains lots of red meat and fried food

Read more about the causes of mouth cancer.

Who is affected by mouth cancer?

Mouth cancer is an uncommon type of cancer, accounting for 1 in 50 of all cancer cases.

In the UK, just over 6,200 new cases of mouth cancer were diagnosed in 2009 (the latest year from which reliable data is available).

Most cases of mouth cancer first develop in older adults who are around 60 years of age.

Mouth cancer can occur in younger adults, but it's thought that HPV infection may be responsible for the majority of cases that occur in younger people.

Mouth cancer is more common in men than in women. This is thought to be due to the fact that, on average, men drink more alcohol than women.

Treating mouth cancer

There are three main treatment options for mouth cancer. They are:

  • surgery - where the cancerous cells are surgically removed and, in some cases, some of the surrounding tissue
  • chemotherapy - where powerful medications are used to kill cancerous cells
  • radiotherapy - where high energy X-rays are used to kill cancerous cells

These treatments are often used in combination. For example, a course of radiotherapy and chemotherapy may be given after surgery to help prevent the cancer returning.

Read more about treating mouth cancer.

Complications of mouth cancer

Both surgery and radiotherapy can make speaking and swallowing difficult (dysphagia).

Dysphagia can be a potentially serious problem. If small pieces of food enter your airways and become lodged in your lungs, it could trigger a chest infection, known as aspiration pneumonia.

Read more about the complications of mouth cancer.

Reducing the risk

The three most effective ways to prevent developing mouth cancer (or prevent it re-ocurring after successful treatment) are:

  • not smoking
  • keeping to the recommended weekly limits for alcohol consumption (21 units for men and 14 units for women (read more about alcohol units)
  • eating a 'Mediterranean-style diet', with plenty of fresh vegetables (particularly tomatoes), citrus fruits, olive oil and fish (read more about healthy eating)

It's also important that you have regular dental check-ups because dentists can often spot the early stages of mouth cancer.


If mouth cancer is diagnosed early, a complete cure is often possible using a combination of radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery.

An estimated 4 out of 5 people with early-stage mouth cancer will live at least five years after their diagnosis and many peole live much longer.

The outlook is poor if mouth cancer is diagnosed at a later stage, after the cancer has spread from the mouth into surrounding tissue. In these circumstances, just 1 in 5 people will live for at least five years after being diagnosed.

Page last reviewed: 31/05/2012

Next review due: 31/05/2014


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The 1 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

poppy247 said on 02 December 2012

I would like to know if you could please help me, most nights when i go to sleep I get this strange feeling on my toungue it feels very rough like sandpaper and it is very red on one side, I also feel that I am loosing my breath when I sleep. It also feels like my toungue has swollen up and the top of my pallet seems very strange can you please tell me why this is happening.



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