Symptoms of Oral Cancer

Oral cancer is a type of head and neck cancer that affects the mouth, gums, inner lining of the cheeks, and/or tongue.

A number of symptoms can be associated with oral cancer, and they vary depending on the location of the tumor, as well as how far it has spread. Additionally, various complications may occur as a direct result of oral cancer (for example, difficulty chewing) or as a result of treatment (for example, radiation-induced mouth sores).

oral cancer symptoms
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Frequent Symptoms

While oral cancers can be discovered incidentally, such as during a dental appointment, some may cause symptoms that prompt medical attention.

Some of the more frequent symptoms of oral cancer include:

  • Non-healing sore or blister: A sore or blister in the mouth that won't heal is the most common sign.
  • Persistent pain: Generalized pain in the mouth or throat that will not go away can occur.
  • White or red patch inside the mouth: They can develop on the floor of the mouth or the underside of the tongue. In the early stages, leukoplakia (white patches) and erythroplakia (raised, red patches) are signs of dysplasia, a pre-cancerous condition. If left untreated, they can progress and become cancerous.

Bite line leukoplakia is very common and appears on the buccaneers mucosa (opposite the point where the upper and lower teeth meet). This type is benign and not generally considered pre-malignant (pre-cancerous).

Any unexplained bleeding in the mouth should prompt a visit to your healthcare provider.

The following symptoms can occur intermittently or gradually worsen with oral cancer:

  • Difficulty chewing or speaking, moving the jaw, moving the tongue
  • A feeling that there is something in your throat
  • Swelling or lump in the cheek, jaw, or neck
  • Unexplained numbness and/or pain
  • Teeth or jaw changes: This may include dentures not fitting correctly or comfortably, as well as loose or painful teeth. 

Rare Symptoms

Less common symptoms of oral cancer include symptoms that resemble those found in temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder, trigeminal neuralgia, or ear problems.

Uncommon symptoms that can occur with oral cancer include:

  • Ear pain that may radiate to the jaw and cheeks
  • A feeling of fullness in the ear
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ear)
  • Jaw stiffness and/or difficulty opening the jaw
  • Pain in the facial muscles or muscles used for chewing
  • Burning, tingling, or sharp shooting electrical facial sensations 

Complications

Depending on the location and stage of cancer, various physical and quality of life-related complications may occur as a result of cancer or the therapy required to treat it. 

Teeth, Tongue, and/or Bone Removal

If cancer has grown into a facial bone or tongue, it may need to be surgically removed. Part of the jaw would be removed for stage 3 or 4 oral cancer.

Radiation necrosis, a rare complication of radiation therapy, can occur after the end of treatment.

Surgery can significantly alter a person's physical appearance and may affect talking and eating. Reconstructive surgery and/or the use of prostheses can help minimize these effects.

Breathing Problems

Oral cancer can contribute to breathing problems due to blockage from cancer or scarring due to treatment.

For example, a tumor may partially obstruct the airway, potentially requiring a tracheostomy. During a tracheostomy, a hole that leads to the trachea (windpipe) is made in the front of the neck. The hole is kept open with a hollow tracheostomy tube to create a new airway.

Malnutrition and Dehydration

With oral cancer, you can experience mouth swelling, sores, dry mouth, and/or loss of taste. Impaired chewing and/or swallowing can also be a problem due to obstruction from the tumor or treatment-related scarring or narrowing.

These issues can interfere with your nutrition. If you can't get enough nourishment from eating, your healthcare provider may recommend the placement of a feeding tube that allows nutrients to flow into your stomach.

Oral Cancer Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next healthcare provider's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Man

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Persistent or unexplained mouth or throat symptoms lasting for two weeks or longer warrant a medical evaluation by your healthcare provider or dentist.

Serious causes can include oral cancer, lip cancer, or oropharyngeal cancer. Oropharyngeal cancer can affect the tonsils, soft palate, back third of the tongue, and the back and side of the throat.

While cancer is an unlikely cause of your symptoms, you could have another problem that needs treatment—such as a cavity or an infection.

According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, at the time of diagnosis, more than 21% of people with oral cancer have nodal metastases-meaning the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes or tissues. Between 10 and 34% have distant metastasis to organs like the lungs.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the survival rate for oral cancer?

    Survival rates for oral cancer depend on where in the oral cavity the cancer begins and if it is localized, regionally metastasized, or distantly metastasized. The average five-year survival rates for oral cancer range from 49 to 92%.

  • How is oral cancer diagnosed?

    Oral cancer diagnosis begins with a complete head and neck examination, followed by imaging tests and possibly a biopsy to confirm whether or not cancerous tissue is present.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Cancer Society. Signs and Symptoms of Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer.

  2. NYU Langone Health. Perlmutter Cancer Center. Reconstructive Surgery for Oral Cancer.

  3. American Cancer Society. Living as an Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer Survivor.

  4. Oral Cancer Foundation. Oral Cancer Facts: Rates of occurrence in the United States.

  5. American Cancer Society. Survival rates for oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer. Updated March 23, 2021.

  6. American Cancer Society. Tests for oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers. Updated March 23, 2021.

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