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Understanding Your Risk for Oral Cancer

Your routine dental exam is more than just a cleaning. Here at Carnegie Dental Wellness in Midtown West Manhattan, New York, we incorporate oral cancer screenings into your appointment. Oral cancer screenings are quick, painless, and can potentially save your life through early detection.

Below, Dr. Constantina Bacopoulou explains the common risk factors of oral cancer, what you can do to reduce your risks, and when to seek treatment.

Risk factors for oral cancer

The following risk factors increase your chance of developing oral cancer:

1. Using tobacco

Smoking cigarettes, pipes, or cigars increases your risk of developing many different types of cancer, including lung, esophageal, and oral cancer. Smokeless tobacco, which includes snuff, dip, and chewing tobacco, also increases your risk of oral cancer. Even though you’re not smoking, smokeless tobacco still exposes you to 25 different known carcinogens. People who use smokeless tobacco are more likely to develop cancerous lesions on the cheek, lip, or gum.

The good news is that this is a risk factor you can control. If you smoke or use smokeless tobacco and want to quit, smoking cessation programs can help you accomplish your goals.

2. Drinking excess alcohol

Moderate consumption of alcohol places you at a 1.8-fold increased risk for oral cancer, and heavy drinkers have a 5-fold increased risk of developing oral cancers. If you smoke and drink, the risks are compounded even more.

3. Family history of cancer

If you have one first-degree family member with a history of oral cancer, you’re three times more likely to develop cancerous lesions. You’re seven times more likely to develop oral cancer if you have two first-degree family members with diagnoses. These statistics aren't accounting for any excess alcohol consumption or smoking, both of which will further increase your risk.

Other risk factors outside of your control include age (over 55) and being male.

4. Poor diet

What you eat (or what you don’t eat) makes a big difference in your overall health, and unfortunately, saying no to fruits and vegetables can increase your risk of oral cancer. Thankfully, the reverse of this is also true: according to a 2021 study published in Nutrients, eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables (especially cruciferous veggies), and curcumin can reduce your risk of oral cancer.

5. UV exposure

Just like excessive sun exposure can lead to skin cancer, it can also form cancerous lesions on your lips. If you’re outside for prolonged hours, apply a lip balm that contains SPF and wear a hat.

Detecting oral cancer

It can be overwhelming to read all of the risk factors for oral cancer, but it’s important to understand all of your risk factors, especially the ones within your control. Smoking cessation, moderating your alcohol consumption, and adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet can help improve your oral health. 

Since some risk factors are not within your control, it’s important to know how to spot the earliest signs of oral cancer so you can get swift treatment. 

Potential signs of oral cancer include:

  • White patches
  • Red patches
  • Visible lumps or bumps
  • Sores that won't heal
  • Mouth pain
  • Loose teeth
  • Difficulty swallowing

Because many of these symptoms can develop as a result of other conditions (such as thrush, gum disease, or ear infections), it’s important to seek dental care if you’re concerned about a symptom. 

Don’t wait until your next routine cleaning. Call us at 646-453-4770 or schedule an appointment via our online scheduling system.