The most important part of your bi-annual dental checkup has nothing to do with your teeth. During these exams, your general dentist will screen you for oral cancer. Oral cancer can affect different areas of your mouth and throat, including the voice box, the tonsils, the back of the tongue, and the soft palate (the soft spot at the roof of your mouth). The screening is painless. Your dentist will look into your throat, examine your mouth, and touch your neck to feel your lymph nodes. Why is this screening so vital? Because oral cancer has a higher death rate than most other cancers. However, if you suspect that you have any of these seven most common signs of oral cancer, don't wait for your annual appointment to see your dentist.
Signs of Oral Cancer
- Painful mouth sores that do not heal (non-healing ulcers)
- Hoarseness or voice changes that do not go away
- Numbness in the mouth and tongue
- White or red patches on gums, tonsils or tongue
- Loose teeth
- Unexplained weight loss
- Bad breath
Avoiding Oral Cancer
There are several precautions you can take to dramatically reduce your risk for oral cancer:
- Stop smoking Obviously, if you smoke, you should quit as soon as possible. Smoking is one of the worst habits for your overall health. In addition to oral cancer, it puts you at risk for heart disease, lung cancer and a wide variety of problems. If you've had trouble quitting in the past, don't give up. There are several free resources available to help you.
- Tobacco and alcohol use Tobacco in any form -- chew, snuff --can place you at risk. Excessive alcohol use does also. However, the combination of tobacco and alcohol use places you at higher risk than either of these factors by themselves.
- HPV infection HPV, or the human papilloma virus, is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. When these same cells affect the throat, it is called oral HPV. Most of the time, the body is able to successfully fight off the infection. However, there are certain types of HPV--called "high-risk" HPV--that do not go away, and these are the types that cause oral cancer. There is some good news: In the U.S., only seven percent of those with HPV have oral HPV, and of those, only one percent have the type that leads to cancer. Speak with your doctor about precautions you can take to avoid an HPV infection.
- Don't skip your annual cleanings! Did you know that most dental insurance plans will completely cover the cost of two cleanings a year? Don't let your dental benefits go unused. An oral cancer screening is a part of this annual exam, and early detection is an important aspect of this check-up.
Of course, there are some oral cancer risk factors you can't change, such as family history. If you have a family history of oral cancer, you should notify your dentist. An accurate and up-to-date medical history is vital to allowing him or her to tailor a treatment plan for you.