What is oral cancer?

Cancer starts when cells in the body grow out of control and form a mass, or tumor. This can happen almost anywhere in the body.

Cancer cells that form in any part of the mouth or in the throat are called head and neck cancer. Oral cancer forms on the flat surfaces of the lips, inside of the cheeks, under the tongue or the roof of the mouth. These cells are called squamous cells.

Anyone can get oral cancer, but it’s more common in men. You can lower you chances of getting oral cancer by quitting tobacco, drinking less alcohol, getting an HPV vaccination (for children), and using sunscreen on the lips.

Oral cancer is part of a larger group of cancers called head and neck cancer.

Oral cancer a disease in which cancer cells form in any part of the mouth or in the throat. You are more likely to get oral cancer if you have ever used tobacco products. Standard treatments include surgery or radiation therapy.

When to See a Doctor

It’s important to find oral cancer early. See your dentist or healthcare provider if any of your symptoms last more than two weeks.

More Information

Symptoms and Causes

Symptoms or oral cancer include:

  • White or red patches in the mouth
  • A sore on the lip or in the mouth that doesn’t heal and bleeds easily. Feeling that something is caught in your throat
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Pain or numbness in the lip or mouth
  • Trouble moving the jaw or tongue
  • A lump in the mouth or throat, or on the lip
  • A lingering earache that does not cause hearing loss


Anyone can get oral cancer. About twice as many men as women get it. Risk increases with:

  • Age. Oral cancers are most common in people over age 50.
  • Personal history of head or neck cancer.
  • HPV infection. HPV is an infection is spread by sexual contact.
  • Tobacco use. Tobacco use is the most common cause of oral cancers. This includes use of cigarettes, pipes, cigars, snuff, and chew.
  • Alcohol use. Drinking more than three drinks per day increases risk.
  • Tobacco and alcohol. People who use both tobacco and alcohol have a much greater risk than people who use either of these alone.
  • Sun. Cancer of the lip can be caused by a lot of time in the sun without sunscreen on the lips.