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Oral Cancer Symptoms

Dentist examining patient's mouth

Oral cancer is the most common type of head and neck cancer. Also known as oral cavity or mouth cancer, oral cancer can occur on the following areas of the mouth:

  • Lips
  • Lining of the lips and cheeks (buccal mucosa)
  • Gums
  • Front two-thirds of the tongue
  • Roof of the mouth (hard palate)
  • Floor of the mouth
  • Area behind the wisdom teeth (retromolar trigone)

Common symptoms of oral cancer

Oral cancer symptoms vary based on what parts of the mouth are affected. In general, the most common signs of oral cancer include:

  • Lumps, bumps, rough patches or areas of erosion on the lips or within the mouth
  • Swelling on the lips or within the mouth
  • Red or white patches within the mouth
  • Unexplained bleeding within the mouth
  • Sores in the mouth or on the face or neck that don’t heal within two weeks
  • Unexplained pain, tenderness, numbness or loss of sensation in the face, mouth or neck
  • Ear pain
  • Sore throat
  • A feeling of having something caught in the back of the throat
  • Voice changes
  • Hoarseness
  • Changes in the way the teeth fit together when biting
  • Difficulty speaking, chewing, swallowing or moving the tongue or jaw
  • Unexplained weight loss

The early signs of oral cancer are often vague and mistaken for a routine dental issue or the common cold. However, it’s important to promptly speak with a dentist or physician if your symptoms do not improve after two weeks. There are many noncancerous conditions that can cause these symptoms, but only a medical professional can rule out cancer and determine appropriate treatment. 

What does oral cancer look like?

The appearance of oral cancers can differ based on their type, location within the mouth and stage. Some people describe the appearance of oral cancers as:

  • Vividly colored and slightly raised red patches that appear and feel velvety (erythroplakia)
  • Patches with a mix of red and white coloring (erythroleukoplakia)
  • Flat greyish or white patches that may feel rough and are difficult to scrape away (leukoplakia)
  • Firm, nodular masses

How is oral cancer usually discovered?

Oral cancers are often discovered during screenings or routine exams conducted by a dentist, oral hygienist or doctor or through self-examination, so they are commonly found early when treatment options are wide-ranging. It’s recommended for average-risk adults between the ages of 20 and 40 to receive an oral cancer screening once every three years, and individuals over 40 to be screened annually. Adults with one or more risk factors for oral cancer should receive an annual screening regardless of their age.

Who is at risk for oral cancer?

Anyone can develop oral cancer, even if they don’t smoke cigarettes or use other forms of tobacco. However, it’s especially important for people with multiple risk factors to be watchful for oral cancer symptoms and seek timely treatment if they occur. Notable risk factors for mouth cancer include:

  • Tobacco use, including chewing tobacco and smoking cigarettes, cigars or pipes
  • Drinking alcohol in excess
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
  • A weakened immune system
  • Frequent sun exposure to the lips

Moffitt’s approach to oral cancer  

Moffitt Cancer Center’s Head & Neck Oncology Program is home to a multispecialty team that focuses exclusively on oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers. In a single setting, patients can receive preventive screenings, learn about their individual risk factors and have potential symptoms of oral cancer examined by renowned cancer specialists.

Request an appointment at Moffitt to consult with a physician regarding your oral cancer symptoms or treatment options by calling 1-888-663-3488 or completing a new patient registration form online. Florida's top cancer hospital, Moffitt is raising the standard of care by connecting patients with oncologists in 24 hours or less. A referral is not required to make an appointment. 


CDC: Head and Neck Cancers
American Cancer Society: Risk Factors for Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers