Smoking - and even chewing - tobacco can raise the risk of you developing oral cancer by up to 10 times.
Whether it’s a cigarette, pipe or cigar the risks are clear to see and even second hand smoke at home can lead to cancer developing in others who share your space.
Cases of oral cancer have increased significantly over the last 10 years and, if treated
successfully, can have a lasting impact on your life…affecting how you speak, eat, drink and it
can often change your physical appearance.
We’ll touch on some other factors that can lead to oral cancer in a while but first, let’s look at the link between smoking tobacco products and mouth cancer.
What is Oral Cancer?
Oral cancer usually presents as what’s known as squamous cell carcinoma; thin, flat cells that
appear in various parts of the body. Within the mouth they can be typically found in the gums,
hard palette on the roof of your mouth, your tongue, lips or inner cheeks.
In 2021, 3,034 people died from mouth cancer, a rise of around 20% over 5 years and survival
rates have barely improved as many of the cancers are caught too late for successful treatment.
In fact, over half of all cases are diagnosed at stage IV - the most advanced stage.
Mouth cancers can initially appear as a mouth ulcer which does not heal, as well as red or white patches in the mouth, or unusual lumps or swellings in the mouth, head or neck.
One-in-three are found on the tongue and almost one-in-four on the tonsils.
Betel Nuts and Cancer
Millions of people across the world chew on betel nuts, which is mainly popular in Asian and
It’s most commonly known as betel quid and used after being ground up and wrapped in the
leaves of the Piper Betel vine and coated in lime with tobacco or other spices added.
The World Health Organisation lists it as the fourth most popular psychoactive substance in the world, after nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine.
Chewing betel nuts or betel quid has been traced back over 2000 years but health experts now say that regular use has a significant impact on oral health and the WHO has classified it as a carcinogen and initiated an action plan to reduce its use.
Chewing Tobacco and Cancer
Smokeless - or chewing/spit - tobacco is another leading cause of mouth cancer with more than 28 cancer causing chemicals being found in the product.
Commonly placed between the cheek and gum, nicotine is released as you chew causing you to ingest these harmful chemicals.
Chewing tobacco or snuff can lead to cancer forming where it’s held in the mouth, so is more
likely to present in the cheek, gums and lips. It often begins with a white patch that develops
inside your mouth or throat.
Is It Just Tobacco that Causes Mouth Cancer?
No, there are many other factors that can cause mouth cancer but smoking, and chewing
tobacco, remains the biggest threat.
Other factors that can cause oral cancer include:
Alcohol is linked to just under a third of all mouth cancers and is mainly prevalent in those who regularly drink to excess. If you smoke and drink alcohol, you’ll be increasing your risk of mouth cancer by up to 30 times.
The human papilloma virus (HPV) is fast catching up to smoking and alcohol as the leading
contributor to oral cancers.
We know that HPV is the major cause of cervical cancer and affects the skin that lines the moist areas of the body therefore it can be spread through oral sex.
Practicing safe sex and limiting the number of partners you have may help reduce your chances of contracting HPV.
While not widely known, there is a slight increase in the chances of you developing mouth
cancer if you have a close relative who has suffered from the disease.
It can also be more likely if you have genetic conditions affecting your bone marrow, skin or
We all know the danger of too much sun or exposure to UV radiation on sunbeds, and we hear a lot about skin cancer, predominantly on the nose, face or shoulders where increased,
unprotected exposure occurs.
We often neglect our lips or fail to apply protection after we have eaten or drank - this leads to
extended exposure to UV radiation which can lead to cancer developing on the lips.
The Dangers of Secondhand Smoke
The dangers of inhaling other people’s smoke have long been known, with secondhand smoke attributed to lung cancer as well as several other diseases.
However, a recent study published in the British Medical Journal shows that people who are
exposed to secondhand smoke over a long period of time can be over 50% more at risk of
developing oral cancer.
Can Your Dentist Diagnose Mouth Cancer?
Regular appointments with your dentist or hygienist can’t necessarily prevent oral cancer, but we will be more likely to notice any changes in your mouth, which could lead to life saving treatment being sought much earlier.
Symptoms of oral cancer include a change in the cells in the lining of your mouth which can appear as red or white patches. The red patches are called Erythroplakia. White patches are called leukoplakia.
We will be able to identify these patches during your appointments, so it is important to attend
regular check ups.
It’s also important to introduce simple checks into your own daily oral hygiene routines so you
can also monitor any changes.
If you notice anything out of the ordinary, you should visit your dentist. If mouth cancer is caught early, the chances to beat it are good.