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Oral, Head and Neck Pathology

Oral Cancer Symptoms and Types

To help diagnose oral cancer early, patients should perform routine self-exams and identify potential oral cancer symptoms. The earlier oral cancer symptoms are identified and diagnosed, the easier the treatment and the greater the chance of a cure. When oral cancers are discovered in an early stage of development, the survival rate ranges from 80 to 90 percent.

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OMS Voices Preview: Oral Cancer and the OMS

Oral Cancer Signs and Symptoms

Oral cancer symptoms can be difficult to notice in part because patients can mistake them for a toothache or a cold. If symptoms persist for several weeks or longer or significant changes are noticed during routine oral cancer self-exams, it is time to visit an oral and maxillofacial surgeon.

Potential oral cancer symptoms include:

  • Persistent mouth pain or persistent mouth sores that do not heal
  • Unexpected numbness or tingling
  • Difficulty swallowing, chewing or moving the mouth or tongue
  • Lumps in the neck or cheek
  • Loose teeth
  • Jaw or ear pain
  • Persistent sore throat
  • White, red or white/red patches of skin in the mouth

Types of Oral Cancer

Oral, head and neck cancers are categorized into five main types by their location: oral and oropharyngeal cancer, laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer, nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer, nasopharyngeal cancer, and salivary gland cancer. Forms of these cancers include:

  • Oral squamous cell carcinoma – Squamous cells line the throat and mouth. Squamous cell carcinoma accounts for 90 to 95 percent of cancerous lesions in the oral cavity. If the lymph nodes are involved, the survival rate is adversely affected. Patients who smoke and drink are at an increased risk of squamous cell carcinoma. These are usually older patients.
  • Oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma – This cancer is most likely to be in the back of the throat in an area called the oropharynx. Human papillomavirus (HPV) may be one cause of oropharyngeal cancer. This cancer affects younger as well as older people. These cancers may be hard to see upon routine mouth or throat examinations, but patients will often have a hard lump in the neck early on that is a cancerous lymph node. A vaccine for HPV may be available.
  • Salivary gland lesions Malignant salivary gland tumors are commonly located in any major salivary glands (parotid, submandibular and sublingual) and minor salivary glands (found in the roof of mouth, lip and cheek). They can present as a lump with or without symptoms.
  • Basal cell carcinoma – A type of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma can affect the lips, nose, scalp or cheeks. It typically grows on skin with lots of sun exposure and is not likely to spread to other areas.
  • Melanoma: Oral melanomas are very rare and are often overlooked until the cancer is particularly advanced, leading to a decreased survival rate.
OMS Voices

OMS Voices Preview: What to Do When You Find a Bump in Your Mouth

Find an OMS Near You

If you have performed an oral cancer self-exam and found potential oral cancer symptoms, it is essential to find an OMS to determine the cause of the symptoms.

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Last updated March 2020

The information provided here is not intended as a substitute for professional medical or dental advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It is provided to help you communicate effectively when you seek the advice of your oral and maxillofacial surgeon. Photos and videos are for illustration purposes only and are not indicative to what a patient may experience.