How Your Dentist Screens You for Oral Cancer

Sep 01, 2023
How Your Dentist Screens You for Oral Cancer
When it comes to early detection, oral cancer has an advantage over most cancers because it causes visible signs. You may be able to see some signs; others can only be found through a dental screening. Here’s what to expect.

Oral cancer screening is an essential part of your dental care because finding cancer at an early stage is life-saving. Unlike most cancers, oral cancer usually has visible signs, making it easier to find before it spreads.

Our team at Litchfield Dental Care protects your oral health by looking for signs of oral cancer at every dental checkup. We also perform a more extensive oral cancer screening in adults with a high risk for the disease.

Here, we explain what increases your risk for this cancer and what to expect during an oral cancer screening.

About oral cancer

Oral cancer includes malignant tumors in your lips, tongue, gums, inner cheeks, and the roof and floor of your mouth. Cancers appearing in your throat, tonsils, or the back part of your upper mouth and tongue are called oropharyngeal cancers.

These cancers are typically diagnosed in people 64 and older. However, at least 20% of all cases appear before age 55.

Assessing your risk

When screening for oral cancer, we follow several steps. In addition to updating your medical history, we complete a risk assessment, review your symptoms, and perform a dental exam. During a risk assessment, we learn if you have any habits or health conditions that contribute to oral cancer, such as:

Tobacco use

Cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, and other tobacco products are the top causes of oral cancer. Tobacco contains many chemicals that damage DNA and lead to cancer. Your risk of oral cancer also rises if you inhale secondhand smoke. 

Alcohol abuse

Your chances of developing oral cancer increase if you engage in heavy or frequent drinking. Alcohol metabolizes into substances that block your body’s natural DNA repair, opening the door for cancerous changes. 

Your risk for oral cancer is significantly higher if you use tobacco and drink alcohol.

HPV infection

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection. In most people, HPV clears out without causing problems. But if the virus takes hold, it may cause cancer, usually in the oropharyngeal area.

Gum disease

You’re more likely to end up with oral cancer if you also have advanced gum disease (periodontitis). Gum disease begins when you don’t brush and floss regularly, allowing bacteria and plaque to collect on your teeth. Tobacco use also contributes to gum disease.

Reviewing oral cancer symptoms

We ask if you have symptoms that are red flags for oral cancer, including:

  • Hoarseness
  • Sores that don’t heal
  • Long-lasting sore throat
  • Mouth, ear, or jaw pain
  • Chronic bad breath
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Sensation that something is stuck in your throat
  • Numbness in your mouth or tongue

You should schedule a dental checkup if you have any symptoms lasting longer than two weeks.

Performing a dental exam

The most important part of oral cancer screening is your dental exam. We begin by feeling for lumps or unusual tissues on the outside of your neck, cheeks, and head. Then we use a gloved finger to check for lumps inside your mouth.

For the next step, we visually examine the soft tissues inside your mouth, looking for sores or red or white patches. We may also do special tests that make it easier to see abnormal cells. For example, we may rinse your mouth with a blue dye that highlights cells or shine a light in your mouth that makes abnormal tissues appear white.

If we find any unusual changes, we perform a biopsy and send the tissue sample to a lab to examine under a microscope. This determines if the cells are normal, if they show precancerous changes, or they’ve turned into cancer.

To learn more about oral cancer or to schedule a screening, call Litchfield Dental Care or use online booking to request an appointment at our office in Litchfield Park, Arizona, today.