Mouth and throat cancer is the eighth most common form of cancer in the UK. According to the Mouth Cancer Foundation, the incidence of head and neck cancer since the 1990s is up by 30 per cent and is projected to rise by another 33 per cent by 2035.

So, what is behind the projected rise and can anything be done to prevent it? In this article we’ll take a look at the risk factors, signs and symptoms, and the treatments available. First, let’s be clear about what oral cancer is.

What is oral cancer?


Oral cancer is the term used to describe a variety of malignant head and neck tumours in the mouth, throat, voice box (larynx), salivary glands, nose and sinuses. Mouth cancer includes various kinds of tumours affecting the lips, salivary glands, tongue, gums, palate and inside of the cheeks.

Oropharyngeal cancer is a disease where cancer starts in the part of the throat directly behind the nose. It includes the base of the tongue, the tonsils the soft palate and the walls of the pharynx.

Risk Factors for developing oral cancer

The risk factors associated with mouth and oropharyngeal cancer includes lifestyle factors and other medical conditions. The exact causes of oral cancer are unclear, but certain lifestyle factors can increase your risk of developing cancer in this area. Risk factors include:


Drinking alcohol increases the risk of oral cancer, especially in smokers. According to Cancer Research UK, as many as 30 per cent of mouth and oropharyngeal cancers are caused by drinking alcohol.


Smoking cigarettes, pipes or cigars increases your risk of developing some form of oral cancer. According to Cancer Research UK more than 60 per cent of mouth and throat cancers in the UK are caused by smoking.

Chewing tobacco, betel quid or gutka

Chewing tobacco (common in parts of Asia, Europe and USA) is known to cause oral cancer. In certain areas of the world, many people chew betel quid, made from the areca nut, spices and lime. Gutka is a mixture of betel quid and tobacco.

Poor diet

According to the Oral Health Foundation, up to half of all mouth cancer cases are partly due to poor diet. Research has shown that a diet rich in fruit and vegetables can help to reduce the risk of mouth cancer. Those with a poor diet, and found to be lacking in vitamins and minerals are more prone to developing oral cancer.

Human papilloma virus (HPV)

The Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted infection. HPV is very common and for many people it causes no harm and disappears without treatment. However, it is a risk factor for developing oral cancer.

Family history of oral cancer

There is a slight increase in the risk of developing oral cancer if you have a close relative who has had a cancer of the mouth.

Sunlight and sunbeds

Skin cancers are common on the head and neck as these are areas that are more exposed to the sun. Skin cancer can develop on the lip as a result of UV (ultraviolet) light from the sun. Studies indicate there is an increased risk of skin cancer in those who regularly use sun beds.


Oral cancers generally take many years to develop, so they’re not common in younger people.

Weakened immune system

Oral cancers are more common in people with weakened immunity. A weak immune system may be due to certain diseases such as AIDS and certain immunosuppressant medicines (such as those given after organ transplants).

Signs and symptoms of mouth cancer to watch out for

For a full list of the symptoms of mouth cancer see the NHS mouth cancer symptoms page. Here are the most common ones:

  • Sore mouth ulcers that do not heal
  • Pain in the mouth
  • Persistent unexplained lumps in the mouth
  • Persistent unexplained lumps in the lymph glands in the neck
  • Pain or difficulty when swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Changes in speech or tone of voice
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loose teeth for no apparent reason

As there aren’t any noticeable symptoms in the early stages of most forms of oral cancer, it’s important to get regular dental check-ups.


Treatments for oral cancer

The treatment offered for oral cancer varies according to exactly where the cancer is and how big the tumour is. It will also depend on the stage of development of the cancer, your general health and whether the cancer has spread anywhere else in your body. Treatments offered may include:

  • Surgery – to remove tumours (this is one of the main treatments)
  • Radiotherapy – high energy waves to kill cancer cells
  • Chemotherapy – anti cancer cytotoxic drugs to destroy cancer cells
  • Chemoradiotherapy – a combination of radiotherapy and chemotherapy
  • Biological therapy – drugs that change the way cells work to help control the growth of cancer cells

If you are at all concerned about your health, or have any oral symptoms you are concerned about, visit your dentist and/or your GP as soon as possible.

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