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Dentist examining patient's mouth

Oral cavity cancer (also called mouth cancer) is the most common type of head and neck cancer. While it typically affects those over the age of 60, younger people can certainly get mouth cancer as well, especially if they have risk factors such as tobacco use or heavy alcohol use. Oral cavity cancer can affect virtually all parts of the mouth, including:

  • Lips
  • Gums
  • Inside of the cheeks and lips
  • Tongue
  • Floor of the mouth
  • Roof of the mouth
  • Area behind the wisdom teeth

Early warning signs and early symptoms of mouth cancer

The early signs of oral cancer are often vague and can be 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 similar symptoms, but only a medical professional can rule out cancer and determine appropriate treatment. 

Common mouth cancer signs and symptoms

Oral cancer symptoms vary based on what part(s) 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
  • Chronic bad breath

What does mouth cancer feel like?

Mouth cancer can feel different based on the location and type of the cancer as well as how advanced it is. Many patients report feeling pain, swelling, and textural changes within their mouths, as well as unexplained bleeding as indicated above. Ultimately, if you feel anything unusual in your mouth, it’s a good idea to get checked out by a medical professional.

What does mouth cancer look like?

The appearance of oral cancers can differ as well based on the same factors. 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 gray or white patches that may feel rough and are difficult to scrape away (leukoplakia)
  • Firm, nodular masses

Advanced oral cavity cancer signs and symptoms

As oral cancer advances, patients may notice worsening of the symptoms listed above, as well as a tumor that increases in size. When left untreated, mouth cancer can spread to the lymph nodes and metastasize to other regions or organs of the body, such as the lungs or stomach. If that happens, patients may also experience symptoms relating to the area where it has spread, such as coughing or shortness of breath for oral cancer that has spread to the lungs.

How Moffitt Cancer Center approaches oral cavity cancer

Moffitt Cancer Center’s Head & Neck Oncology Program boasts a multispecialty team that includes physicians, surgeons, oncologists, radiologists and other professionals in order to provide comprehensive care and treatment. 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. We also operate a robust clinical trials program that allows our patients to access cutting-edge treatments that are not available anywhere else. Moffitt is proud to be the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center based in Florida.

Request an appointment at Moffitt to consult with a member of our team regarding your oral cancer symptoms or treatment options by calling 1-888-663-3488 or completing a new patient registration form online. A referral is not required to make an appointment. 


Oral Cavity (Mouth) and Oropharyngeal (Throat) Cancer 

Head and Neck Cancers | CDC 

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

Oral Cavity (Mouth) Cancer