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This is What Cancer in Your Mouth Feels Like

Here’s how to spot it and prevent it.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Mouth cancer (also called "oral cancer") parts that make up the mouth (oral cavity). As such, oral cancer can occur on:

  • The roof of the mouth
  • The floor of the mouth (under the tongue)
  • The inner lining of cheeks
  • Tongue
  • Gums
  • Lips

Oral cancer is one of many cancers that belong to the broader group of head and neck cancers and are often treated similarly to other cancers in that area of the body. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


What Causes Mouth Cancer?

Woman stands about a mirror in a bathroom with open mouth.

Oral cancer forms when cells in the lips or mouth develop unhealthy changes (mutations) in their DNA. The cell's DNA contains instructions that tell the cell what to do.

The accumulation of abnormal cancer cells in the mouth can form a tumor. Over time, they can spread inside the mouth and other head and neck areas, even throughout the body, if left untreated.

Oral cancer usually starts in the thin, flat cells (squamous cells) located in your lips and inside your mouth. Most oral cancers are squamous cell carcinomas.

It is unclear what causes the mutations in squamous cells that lead to oral cancer. But doctors have identified factors that can increase the risk of oral cancer, including any type of tobacco use, excessive alcohol consumption, excessive sun exposure on the lips, HPV, or a compromised immune system. Read on to find out what oral cancer feels like.


These Kind of Sores in the Mouth

Woman with mirror

Sores in the mouth can signify mouth cancer, but it's important to note that not all mouth sores are cancerous or precancerous. Here are some of the signs to look out for and for which it's important to get medical attention:

  • Erythroleukoplakia: A patch on your tongue, gums, tonsils, or mouth lining that are a combination of red and white in color in your mouth, is an abnormal cell growth that is thought to become malignant. If the red and white patches persist for longer than about fourteen days, you should see your dentist.
  • Leukoplakia or Keratosis: White or gray patches that are raised and feel tough may be leukoplakia or keratosis. Damage or trauma in the mouth and smoking are linked to the creation of these plaques which are associated with an increased risk of cancer and should be addressed with a doctor.
  • Canker Sores: Canker sores are not associated with an increased risk of cancer. A canker sore presents with a center that is white, dark, or yellow, and with red edges. In its early stages, canker sores may not cause any problems.

Loose Teeth

Woman with a toothpain.

Any time an adult has a loose tooth, there would tend to be room for concern. This is why good oral hygiene, exercising moderation in terms of alcohol consumption, and reducing or eliminating smoking or chewing tobacco, can be so critical. In fact, even when adjusted for factors like cigarette smoking, good oral health has been linked to better outcomes and lower incidences of cancer.


Difficulty Swallowing

Closeup of sick woman having sore throat.

Dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, is typically associated with a more advanced mouth cancer and linked to a notciable tumor in the mouth or throat. That said, if you do notice difficulty swallowing, it's absolutely important that you speak with your doctor about it.

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Jaw and/or Ear Pain

Swollen Lymph Nodes

Some of the most common symptoms of oral cancer involve pain or discomfort in the jaw and ears, with many of these symptoms overlapping with those of TMJ, an oral infection, or an ear infection. That said, if any of these symptoms occur at the same time as the other symptoms of mouth cancer listed here, it's a very good idea to express your concern to your doctor.

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What You Should Do If You Notice These Signs

woman consulting with her female doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor or dentist if you have persistent signs and symptoms that bother you and last for more than two weeks. Your doctor will likely look at other, more common causes of your signs and symptoms first, such as an infection.


How You Can Reduce Your Risk

stop smoking

There is no proven way to prevent cancer from the mouth. However, you can reduce the risk of oral cancer if you stop, or don't start, using tobacco products. Drinking alcohol to an excessive extent can irritate cells in the mouth, making them prone to mouth cancer. And to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Dr. Babak Larian
Dr. Babak Larian is the Clinical Chief of the Division of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, and the co-founder of MDbio—a plant-based medicine company. Read more about Dr. Babak
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