Common Risk Factors of Oral Cancer

Oral cancer originates in your oral cavity, more commonly called your mouth. It can emerge in the tissues that make up your lips, the inner lining of your lips and cheeks, the bony roof of your mouth (hard palate), or the floor of your mouth. Oral cancer can also affect your teeth, gums, or tongue. 

Cancer that develops just beyond your mouth in your upper throat (oropharynx) is called oropharyngeal cancer. This closely related cancer can occur in the lining of your throat, at the back of the roof of your mouth (soft palate), in your tonsils, or on the base of your tongue.

An estimated 54,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with oral or oropharyngeal cancer this year. As with other forms of cancer, early detection and prompt treatment increase your chances of achieving remission and long-term survival. 

As dentists who understand the immeasurable value of routine preventive care, the team at Smiles in Springfield includes oral cancer screenings in every dental exam. These screenings are especially important for patients who fall into one or more of the following risk categories: 

Unmodifiable risk factors

The risk factors for oral and oropharyngeal cancer that can’t be changed are: 

Male gender 

Men are twice as likely to develop oral cancer compared with women. This substantial gap may be partly attributable to tobacco and alcohol use, two habits that are more common among men and major risk factors for oral cancer. 

Older age

Because cancers of the oral cavity and oropharynx usually take years to develop, they’re rare in young people. Two in three people who are diagnosed with oral or oropharyngeal cancer are aged 55 or older; the average age of diagnosis is 62. 

Lifestyle risk factors

Some of the strongest risk factors for oral and oropharyngeal cancer are related to lifestyle choices. Luckily, these factors can be modified with the right information, tools, and support: 

Regular tobacco use

Four in five people who develop oral and oropharyngeal cancer use tobacco, either in the form of cigarettes, chewing tobacco, or snuff. As the top risk factor for these cancers, tobacco use is strongly associated with cancer of the throat, gums, and inner surface of the lips and cheeks. 

Heavy alcohol use

Heavy alcohol use is also a major risk factor for oral and oropharyngeal cancer — about 70% of people who are diagnosed with these cancers are heavy drinkers. People who drink heavily and also use tobacco are even more likely to develop oral or oropharyngeal cancer.  

Betel quid and gutka use

Oral and oropharyngeal cancers are also strongly linked to betel quid and gutka. Betel quid is a Southeast Asian chew product made of betel plant leaves, areca nuts, lime, and spices; gutka is a combination of betel quid and chewing tobacco.

Ultraviolet (UV) light exposure

Prolonged exposure to damaging UV light rays, either from spending extensive time in the sun or in a tanning bed, increases your risk of developing lip cancer.   

Health-related risk factors 

Certain chronic health conditions are associated with an increased risk of developing oral and oropharyngeal cancers, including:

HPV infection 

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection. Most of the 200-plus HPV types are harmless, but about 40 types of HPV can infect the male and female genitalia as well as the anus, mouth, and throat. 

Some types of HPV cause warts, but the most worrisome types can lead to cancer, including oral and oropharyngeal cancers. Only a small percentage of HPV infections result in mouth or throat cancer, but that percentage has been rising — particularly among younger adults.       

Weak immune system 

A weak immune system leaves you open to a wide range of health problems, including a higher risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancers. Immune-suppressing medications, certain autoimmune disorders, and HIV/AIDS can all interfere with your body’s normal immune system response. 

To learn more about your oral cancer risk or schedule a screening at our Springfield, Virginia, office, call 703-634-4239 today.

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