Skip to Content

Oral Cancer Prevention and Screening

Cancer screening exams are important medical tests done when you’re at risk but don’t have symptoms. They help find cancer at its earliest stage, when the chances for successful treatment are highest.

One of the most important screening methods for oral cancer is a thorough examination by a dentist each year. Be sure your dentist performs a mouth, head and neck screening as part of each exam. You also may want to ask your physician to perform a thorough head and neck exam during regular checkups.

Tell your dentist or doctor about any unusual or abnormal areas, sores or bumps in your mouth. Between visits, use a mirror to check your mouth. The Oral Premalignancy Clinic provides screening for oral cancer or precancerous lesions.

Oral Cancer Risk Factors

Anything that increases your chance of getting oral cancer is a risk factor. The main risk factors for oral cancer are:

Tobacco use: Most people with oral cancer use tobacco in some form. The risk increases with the length of the habit and the amount of tobacco used. Specifically, pipe smoking increases the risk for cancer of the lip and the soft palate. People who use chewing tobacco or snuff are more likely to develop cancer of the gums, cheek and lips. Living with a smoker or working in a smoking environment can cause secondhand or passive smoking, which also may increase risk.  Read more about MD Anderson’s smoking cessation clinical trials.

Alcohol: Most people with oral cancer are heavy drinkers, consuming more than 21 alcoholic drinks each week. People who drink alcohol and smoke are six times as likely to get oral cancer as people who do not drink. The combination of tobacco and alcohol is particularly dangerous.

Other risk factors include:

  • Gender: About two thirds of people with oral cancer are men
  • Race: The risk is higher for African Americans
  • Age: These cancers are found most often in people over 45
  • Prolonged sun exposure (lip cancer)
  • Long-term irritation caused by ill-fitting dentures
  • Poor nutrition, especially a diet low in fruits and vegetables
  • Immunosuppressive drugs
  • Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Previous head and neck cancer
  • Radiation exposure
  • Lichen planus, a disease that affects the cells that line the mouth
  • Drinking maté, a beverage made from a type of holly tree common in South America
  • Chewing quids of betel, a stimulant common in Asia

Not everyone with risk factors gets oral cancer. However, if you have risk factors, you should discuss them with your doctor.

Why Choose MD Anderson?

  • Surgical expertise, including minimally invasive techniques, to treat oral cancer
  • Innovative treatments, including tumor growth factor inhibitors, for oral cancer
  • Reconstruction techniques after oral cancer treatment
  • Treatment of cancer and pre-cancerous lesions

Oral Cancer Knowledge Center

Treatment at MD Anderson

Oral cancer is treated in our:

Find Your MD Anderson Location


Oral Cancer Prevention

Cancers of the mouth are among the most preventable cancers. One of the most important things you can do is visit a dentist once a year for a complete oral examination.

To minimize your risk of developing oral cancer:

  • Avoid tobacco in all forms. Read more about MD Anderson’s smoking cessation clinical trials
  • Drink alcohol in moderation
  • Remove your dentures at night and clean them daily
  • Have dentures evaluated by a dentist at least every five years
  • Limit sun exposure; wear a lip balm with sunscreen and a hat with a brim
  • Eat a well-rounded, healthy diet with a variety of fruits and vegetables

Research shows that many cancers can be prevented if people applied everything known about cancer prevention to their lives. Visit the Prevention section of our website to find out steps you can take to avoid cancer.


© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center