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Oral, Head and Neck Pathology

Oral Pathology vs. Oral Cancer

The discovery of a cyst or sore during an oral self-exam may be upsetting. If you discover a suspicious lump, sore or lesion, promptly make an appointment for an examination by an oral and maxillofacial surgeon. Most oral pathologies are not cancerous, but each should be diagnosed by an OMS. Some noncancerous pathologies should be managed by a medical or dental professional as they can become a cancer if left untreated.

Oral Pathologies

A pathology is any deviation from a healthy, normal condition. While oral cancer is an oral pathology, not all oral pathologies are cancerous.

Often, pathologies can be discovered by performing a self-exam. Be sure to look for:

  • White patches on oral tissue (leukoplakia)
  • Red patches on oral tissue (erythroplakia)
  • White and red patches on oral tissue (erythroleukoplakia)
  • Sores, spots, lesions and ulcers, particularly those that bleed easily and have failed to heal
  • Lumps or abnormal thickening of oral tissue
  • Masses or lumps in the neck
  • Enlarged lymph nodes in either side of the neck

Other symptoms to watch for include chronic sore throat or hoarseness and difficulty swallowing or chewing.

While many of these pathologies can be benign, they also can increase the risk of cancer if untreated. Most leukoplakia patches are noncancerous, for example, but the presence of some types of leukoplakia can increase the risk of oral cancer.

Oral Cancer

There are five major types of head and neck cancer, with oral cancer (including cancers of the lip and inside the mouth) considered a type of head and neck cancer. Each type of cancer is named for the location where it develops:

  • Oral and oropharyngeal cancer
  • Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer
  • Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer
  • Nasopharyngeal cancer
  • Salivary gland cancer

While certain oral pathologies can be precursors to cancer, a proper diagnosis requires a biopsy of the tissue. During a biopsy, the area is numbed similar to how the gum around a tooth is numbed for a filling. Then a small piece of tissue is removed and sent to an oral pathologist, a specialist who examines the tissue microscopically for evidence of cancer cells.

Find an OMS Near You

Everyone should make it a routine to perform monthly cancer self-exams. However, those with risk factors for oral, head and neck cancers should be sure to undergo an annual exam by an OMS or dentist. These risk factors include:

  • Use of tobacco, including cigarettes, pipes, cigars, snuff, chew or smokeless tobacco.
  • Alcohol consumption, particularly when consumed with tobacco products.
  • The human papillomavirus (HPV).

Early detection and treatment may well be the key to complete recovery.

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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.