What Are The Warning Signs Of Mouth Cancer?

We are all guilty of it - we might experience a bit of pain when brushing our teeth or spot something that looks a bit peculiar... and we promise ourselves we will get it checked at the dentist 'soon'. And then...somehow 'soon' becomes 6 months and actually the problem has got worse.

The team at SmileTime knows exactly what it's like to try and fit dental checkups between busy schedules - which is why we want to help you identify the warning signof mouth cancer as early as possible. 

(FYI - if you have any dental issues - don't wait - book an appointment with your dentist! Our partner national dental chain Smileright specialises in quality, affordable dental care - with same day appointments available (at Cardiff, London, Basingstoke, Cheltenham) from £35. They have confirmed they are taking on new patients.)  

1. What are the symptoms of mouth cancer?

The NHS confirms that mouth cancer can develop in most parts of the mouth, including the lips, gums and occasionally the throat. The most common symptoms of mouth cancer are:

  • sore mouth ulcers that do not heal within several weeks
  • unexplained, persistent lumps in the mouth that do not go away
  • unexplained, persistent lumps in the lymph glands in the neck that do not go away

Other symptoms to watch out for: 

  • pain or difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
  • changes in your voice or problems with speech
  • unintentional weight loss
  • bleeding or numbness in the mouth
  • 1 or more teeth that becomes loose for no obvious reason, or a tooth socket that does not heal after a tooth is removed (extraction)
  • difficulty moving your jaw
  • red or white patches on the lining of your mouth. These are common and are rarely a sign of cancer, but they can sometimes turn into cancer, so it's worth seeing a doctor if you have them

2. When to seek medical advice?

Many of the common symptoms can be caused by less serious conditions, such as an infection. However, it's strongly recommended that you see a GP or dentist if any of the symptoms have lasted longer than 3 weeks. It's particularly important to seek medical advice if you drink or smoke regularly.

3. How will a doctor or dentist diagnose mouth cancer?

If you have symptoms of mouth cancer, a GP or dentist will do a physical examination and ask about your symptoms.

Early detection can boost your chance of survival from 50% to 90%. This is why you should report any symptoms to your dentist or doctor if they do not get better after 3 weeks.

If mouth cancer is suspected, you'll be referred to hospital for further tests or to speak to a specialist oral and maxillofacial surgeon.


A small sample of affected tissue will need to be removed to check for the presence of cancerous cells. This is known as a biopsy.

The main methods used to carry out a biopsy in cases of suspected mouth cancer are:

  • an incision or punch biopsy
  • a fine needle aspiration with cytology
  • a nasendoscopy
  • a panendoscopy

The samples taken during a biopsy are examined under a microscope by a specialist doctor (pathologist).

The pathologist then sends a report to the surgeon to tell them whether it's cancer and, if it is, what type and what grade it is.

Fine needle aspiration cytology

A fine needle aspiration cytology (FNAC) may be used if you have a swelling in your neck that's thought to be a secondary from the mouth cancer.

It's usually done at the same time as an ultrasound scan of the neck.

FNA is like having a blood test. A very small needle is used to draw out a small sample of cells and fluid from the lump so it can be checked for cancer.

The procedure is very quick and the discomfort felt is the same as with a blood test.

Further tests

If the biopsy confirms that you have mouth cancer, you'll need further tests to check what stage it's reached before any treatment is planned. These tests usually involve having scans to check whether the cancer has spread into tissues next to the primary cancer, such as the jaw or skin, as well as scans to check for spread into the lymph glands in your neck.

It's rare for mouth cancer to spread further than these glands, but you'll also have scans to check the rest of your body.

Tests you may have include:

Your X-rays and scans will be looked at by a specialist doctor called a radiologist. They'll write a report which plays a major part in making decisions about staging.

After these tests have been done, it should be possible to determine the stage and grade of your cancer. 

4. What are the causes of mouth cancer?

The leading causes of mouth cancer in the UK are tobacco and alcohol.

Both tobacco and alcohol are carcinogenic, which means they contain chemicals that can damage the DNA in cells and lead to cancer. If you drink alcohol or you smoke, this increases your risk of mouth cancer. If you both smoke and drink alcohol, this further increases your risk. It's not known exactly what triggers the DNA changes that lead to mouth cancer, or why only a small number of people develop it.

Other risk factors for mouth cancer include:

  • chewing tobacco or other smokeless tobacco products
  • chewing betel nuts with or without added tobacco
  • an unhealthy diet
  • the human papillomavirus (HPV)

Human papillomavirus (HPV)

The human papilloma virus (HPV) is a group of viruses that affect the skin and moist membranes inside the body, such as those in the cervix, anus, mouth and throat.

You can get an HPV infection by having sexual contact with a person who's already infected. You do not have to have penetrative sex, just skin-to-skin contact.

There's evidence that in rare cases, certain types of HPV can cause abnormal tissue growth inside the mouth, triggering mouth cancer.

Oral hygiene

As cancer is sometimes linked with long-standing wounds, there's a small chance that jagged, broken teeth, which cause persistent ulcers or wounds on the tongue, can increase the chance of mouth cancer developing there.

It's therefore very important to do everything you can to keep your mouth and teeth healthy.

5. Can mouth cancer be treated?

If mouth cancer is found early, surgery may be used, which has a high chance of curing the cancer so it does not come back. That's why you should report any changes in your mouth to a dentist and doctor if they do not get better after 3 weeks. For advanced mouth cancer, you'll need treatment with surgery, radiotherapy and medicine over a period of at least 4 months.

If you have any dental issues - don't wait - book an appointment with your dentist! Our partner national dental chain Smileright specialises in quality, affordable dental care - with same day appointments available (at Cardiff, London, Basingstoke, Cheltenham) from £35. They have confirmed they are taking on new patients.)  

Please note this blog is purely to help flag the risks and warning signs and does not constitute dental or medical advice. 

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published