Oral Cancer: 7 Easy Ways to Prevent Oral Cancer


Did you know: One person in the United States dies every hour from oral cancer? That’s a staggering amount if you think about it! Here’s some information about oral cancer including risk factors and what you can do to make sure you catch it in time before it becomes too late.


450,000 people are diagnosed with oral cancer worldwide. Around 50,000 people will be diagnosed with oral or pharyngeal cancer in the United States this year. That means that 11% of oral cancer cases in the world occur in the U.S. It will cause around 10,000 deaths, meaning 20% of those diagnosed will die. Of the 80% that survive, only approximately 57% will be alive in 5 years.

Thankfully the survival rate of oral cancer has gone up from 50% to around 57% over the past few decades. But this increase is not due to early diagnosis, but rather from an increase in the effectiveness of treating HPV. This is because the newest risk factor linked to oral cancer is the HPV16 (Human Papillomavirus).


Historically, major risk factors have been age: anyone over the age of 40 is more likely to get oral cancer. Also lifestyle risk factors like tobacco use (smoking, chewing tobacco, cigars) and alcohol use (drinking wine, beer, liquor & oral rinses containing alcohol) increase your likelihood of getting oral cancer. If you have a history of any other type of cancer, then you’re at a higher risk as well. Also exposure to radiation, like the sun, increases the risk of cancer of the lips, especially the lower lip since that is the one that usually juts out the furthest on the face.

So, how can we decrease the risk of being diagnosed with oral cancer? Here are a few tips:

VISIT YOUR DENTIST REGULARLY. Make sure you get an annual oral cancer screening including the head and neck. This includes a visual examination of the oral tissues, underneath the tongue, back of the throat, the inside of the cheeks and lips, roof of the mouth, sides and back of the tongue. Also palpating around your jaw, beneath the ears and the lymph nodes in your neck.

I do one of these regularly once a year for all of my patients, but I do a visual screening every time I see a patient as well. My patients usually tell me “Doc, you ask me about the same area in my mouth every time I see you!” They seem annoyed, because I ask them the same questions every time I see something suspicious, but that’s simply my protocol!

STOP USING TOBACCO. Smoking cigarettes, cigars, marijuana or using chewing tobacco severely increases your risk of oral cancer, especially if you’ve been doing it for years. The physical damage of the heat from smoking damages your gums. This includes trendy vaping. The chemicals and toxins in a cigarette transform your saliva into a deadly cocktail and damages your cells, leading to oral cancer.

STOP DRINKING ALCOHOL. This one can be tough, I know. But moderation is key. Although drinking a glass of wine with 12% alcohol doesn’t seem harmful, when you add up the number of times that alcohol has passed through your lips and hit the tissue of your mouth, it adds up.

STOP USING LISTERINE.  Listerine actually as more than twice the amount of alcohol that wine does (26.9%). It also has other chemicals and coloring in it. Think about it: You rinse with Listerine, for 30 seconds straight, twice a day, for years, pushing those chemicals and alcohol straight into the cells of the tissue in your mouth. Of course your cells will be adversely affected! Studies have shown the link to long-term Listerine (and other alcohol based rinses) use and oral cancer. I tell my patients they can use Listerine if they dilute it with water, simply for the taste. But at that point its antibacterial property has been lost. So, my patients use only one mouth rinse with alcohol, that I prescribe to them if needed, for short-term use only. After that they use an alcohol-free herbal tooth & gums rinse that is all natural. This way I am able to eliminate one risk factor for oral cancer, while keeping my patients’ gums healthy!

WEAR SUNSCREEN & A HAT. I live in Florida, so I know my patients are outdoors for much of the year. Even just walking to and from our cars in the parking lot, we get a lot of radiation from the sun. And since our lower lip usually juts out the furthest on the face, I tell my patients to use a lip balm with sunscreen as well as wear a hat when they are outdoors. Also avoid indoor tanning beds!

GET YOUR TEETH STRAIGHTENED. If you have malocclusion – a bad bite – then you could be causing repeated trauma to an area in your mouth like biting your cheek or tongue. This constant trauma to the tissue, will cause the cells to change and can lead to oral cancer. So if you get your teeth aligned – straightened with Invisalign® – to a healthy bite, then you will decrease your chances of getting oral cancer.

DO A MONTHLY CHECK INSIDE YOUR MOUTH. Just like women do a monthly self breast exam, I recommend you check out the inside and outside of your mouth once a month. Look for any unusual lesions, bumps or lumps or discolorations, and don’t forget your lips!. Especially if you have a sore area that won’t go away or get better after 14 days, then visit your dentist immediately. You may need a biopsy to see if there is anything out of the ordinary.

So, the key to avoiding oral cancer is to modify your lifestyle and try to catch it early on. Usually by the time oral cancer is seen by the naked eye alone, it is in the late stages already. If it’s caught in the late stages, then it can require disfiguring surgery in order to save your life. That’s why I recommend a more detailed oral cancer screening, like Vizilite or Velscope – both of which allow us to see any changes in your oral tissues before it becomes too late. We have the tools to catch oral cancer early on, and although very few dental insurance companies will pay for this special examination, it’s worth your peace of mind to pay for it out of pocket on an annual basis. Your life may be saved by your dentist!

Melisande J. Wolff, DMD