Oral cancer

Oral and oropharyngeal cancers

Oral cancer (also known as mouth cancer) can affect any part of the oral cavity, including the lips, tongue, gums, floor and roof of the mouth. The oropharynx is the part of the throat just behind the mouth. Cancer starting in this area is called oropharyngeal cancer.

The two main risk factors for oral cancer are alcohol and tobacco. They expose your mouth to cancer-causing substances. If you drink alcohol and use tobacco, your risk is much greater. Oropharyngeal cancers are commonly caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), the same virus that causes cervical cancer. Smoking and drinking alcohol can further increase your risk.

Oral and oropharyngeal cancers can be treated if diagnosed at an early stage, so it’s important to have regular check-ups and see your oral health professional immediately if you notice any changes in your mouth that do not heal within two weeks.

What should I look for?

If you have any of these symptoms that don’t heal within two weeks, see your oral health professional. Having these symptoms does not necessarily mean that you have cancer, but it is important to get them checked out.

  • A sore or an ulcer in your mouth, which may or may not be painful
  • A lump inside your cheek or on your neck
  • White or red patches in your mouth
  • Loose teeth
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • A sore throat or hoarse voice
  • Spitting or coughing up blood
  • Difficulty moving your tongue or jaw, or swelling or numbness

Who is most at risk?

If you:

  • regularly use tobacco and/or drink alcohol
  • are over 45 years of age
  • are male – men are three times more likely to get oral cancer than women
  • are overweight or obese
  • are regularly exposed to UV radiation from the sun or sunbeds
  • have a weakened immune system
  • are an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person
  • are on a lower income
  • are a regular user of mouthwash containing alcohol
  • have previously had oral cancer

then you are at higher risk of developing oral and oropharyngeal cancers. Current evidence shows that older women and younger people who are non-smokers and non-drinkers are also at risk.

What can I do to reduce my risk?

Following this advice doesn’t mean that you will never get oral or oropharyngeal cancer, but it can reduce your risk and has other health benefits too.

Quit smoking

If you use tobacco, you are twice as likely to develop oral cancer than a non-smoker. Tobacco use includes smoking cigarettes, cigars or pipes, and chewing tobacco, areca nut, betel quid, pan or gutka. Once you quit using tobacco, your oral cancer risk will start to decrease.

If you need help to quit, call the Quitline on 137 848 (13 QUIT).

Drink less alcohol

If you drink alcohol, you are six times as likely to develop oral cancer than a non-drinker. The less you choose to drink, the lower your risk. If you want to drink less, start by having regular alcohol-free days. For oral cancer prevention, not drinking at all is the safest option.

If you need support to drink less, call DirectLine on 1800 888 236.

Be sun smart

Extended sun exposure can increase your risk of lip cancer. Avoid sunburn by protecting your face and lips with sunscreen, wearing a hat when outdoors, seeking shade where you can and not using sunbeds.

Learn more about being sun smart and protecting your lips from UV.

Reduce HPV risk

Quitting smoking, drinking less alcohol and practicing safe oral sex can reduce your risk of oropharyngeal cancer. The HPV vaccine can significantly reduce your child's chances of developing HPV-related illnesses, including cervical and oropharyngeal cancers.

Find out more about the National HPV Vaccination Program for girls and boys aged 12 to 13.

Eat well and stay a healthy weight

A balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables and staying a healthy weight may help lower the risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancers. Healthy eating is also a good way to improve your dental and overall health.

Food and drink for a healthy mouth

For more information about oral cancer symptoms and how to reduce your risk, see the Better Health page on mouth cancer.