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Tongue cancer develops on the front two-thirds of the tongue (the “oral tongue”). While several types of oral cavity cancer can affect the tongue, squamous cell carcinoma is the most common. Squamous cells—thin, flat cells in the outermost layer of skin—are constantly shed as new cells form. When squamous cells grow out of control, they can bind together and form cancerous tumors, such as tongue cancer.

Is tongue cancer painful?

Some of the first signs of tongue cancer often include a painful lump or sore on the side of the tongue that may bleed easily and resist healing. Mouth or tongue pain is also a common symptom. Other painful symptoms include: 

  • Persistent jaw pain
  • Difficulty speaking, chewing or swallowing
  • An irritated or sore throat that does not go away within a few days
  • Neck or ear pain
  • A feeling of something persistently lodged in the throat

Other symptoms to watch out for

There are many other signs of tongue cancer that may not cause significant pain, but should still be discussed with a physician if the symptoms do not go away. These include:

  • A lump or thickening in the mouth
  • A red or white patch on the tongue, the inner lining of the cheeks, the gums, the roof of the mouth or the tonsils
  • Hoarseness
  • Loose teeth or dentures
  • Swelling of the tongue that doesn’t go away after a few weeks

In most cases, a sore tongue and other tongue cancer symptoms are caused by a more common and less serious condition than cancer. Even so, it’s important to pay close attention to any unusual tongue pain and other changes and to promptly discuss the symptoms with a physician.

Who is at risk of developing tongue cancer?

While anyone can develop tongue cancer, certain factors are known to increase the risk, such as:

  • Tobacco use of any kind, such as smoking cigarettes or cigars, chewing tobacco or inhaling snuff
  • Lip exposure to natural or artificial sources of ultraviolet (UV) light, such as the sun and tanning beds
  • A weakened immune system
  • A human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
  • Excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages

If you’d like to discuss your tongue pain or other tongue cancer symptoms with an oral cancer specialist in the Head and Neck Cancer Program at Moffitt Cancer Center, you can request an appointment by completing our new patient registration form online or calling 1-888-663-3488.