When you think of going to the dentist, you probably think of the usual things, like having cavities filled or getting your teeth cleaned. You may not realize that your dentist is performing a potentially life-saving exam each time you have a checkup: an oral cancer screening.
Sadly, oral cancer has been on the rise in recent years. The American Cancer Society estimates that around 50,000 people will be diagnosed with the disease in 2018. As with all types of cancer, early detection is crucial to the prognosis. But with oral cancer that can be easier said than done. Most people simply don’t inspect the nooks and crannies of their mouth on a regular basis! Thankfully, your dentist can do that for you. In this blog, we’ll talk more about the risk factors for this life-threatening condition as well as signs and symptoms.
What Are the Risk Factors for Oral Cancer?
Many people think of oral cancer as something that only happens to older people with a history of tobacco and alcohol use. While those things certainly increase the risk, there’s a troubling trend of young people being diagnosed with oral cancer who don’t smoke or drink heavily. In fact, oral cancer has risen while tobacco use has decreased.
So what accounts for the higher number of cases? Researchers believe that HPV (human papillomavirus) is largely responsible for this increase, although more studies are being done.
In addition to looking for oral cancers inside the mouth, dentists are also looking to make sure the lips and surrounding skin outside of the mouth are healthy as well, as it can be a common area for melanoma, a serious form of skin cancer.
Melanoma can develop on or around the lips, as people rarely wear sunscreen on this part of the body. Extensive, repeated sun exposure is the biggest risk factor, so always wear a lip balm with SPF.
What Signs or Symptoms Should You Look For?
The encouraging news about oral cancer is that the screening can be done quickly and simply at your bi-annual checkups.
A good rule of thumb to remember is that any sore or lesion in your mouth should heal on its own within about 10 days. If it hasn’t it’s a good idea to have it checked out as soon as possible.
Remember, if you notice anything you aren’t sure about, don’t panic! There are many reasons that you could develop lumps, bumps or sores that don’t involve oral cancer.
Your dentist is trained to know what to look for and will either be able to diagnose your condition or refer you to a specialist who can.
Remember that knowledge is power – especially when it comes to your health!
About the Author
Dr. Melanie White is a general, cosmetic and restorative dentist who is committed to helping her patients achieve excellent oral health. She places a high value on performing oral cancer screenings at every visit so she can help her patients lead long, healthy lives. She can be reached for questions through her website or at (608) 882-4860.