Causes and Prevention

What is Mouth Cancer?

Mouth cancer, also known as oral cancer, describes one of the areas where head and neck cancers can occur and includes various kinds of tumours affecting the lips, salivary glands, tongue, gums, palate and inside of the cheeks. Cancers further back around the root of the tongue, soft palate, tonsils and the upper part of the throat (the pharynx) are more properly called pharyngeal cancer. Although there are several different cancers that can occur in these areas the most common is called squamous cell carcinoma (scc) which arises from the surface cells of the skin.

Throat cancer is not a precise term but is usually understood to mean cancers in the pharynx (the hollow tube between the nose and windpipe) and the larynx (voice box) and upper part of the oesophagus (food tube leading to stomach).

Cancer affecting the nasal cavity and paranasal air sinuses is also included in head and neck cancers.  Mouth and throat cancer can grow and spread very quickly so it is essential that you see a GP or dentist as soon as possible if you think you may have any of the signs and symptoms.

What Causes Mouth Cancer?

  • Tobacco use is still considered the main cause of mouth cancer. According to the World Health Organisation, up to half of current smokers will die of a tobacco-related illness – including mouth cancer.
  • Tobacco users are 6 times more likely to develop head & neck cancer.
  • 75% of mouth and throat cancers occur in tobacco users.
  • Alcohol is another common cause of mouth cancer. Drinking to excess can increase the risk of mouth cancer by four times. 
  • 3 in 4 people, who have mouth cancer, smoke and consume alcohol.  
  • Experts suggest the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), transmitted through oral sex, could overtake tobacco and alcohol as the main risk factor within the coming decade.
  • Poor diet is linked to a third of all mouth cancer cases.