Part of the challenge of proper diagnosis of oral cancers is that the symptoms can be the same for other kinds of conditions, such as colds, fever blisters, and common problems with teeth and gums. Just having a bump inside the mouth is not necessarily a sure sign of cancer and may just be the ordinary protective mechanism of the oral cavity against bacteria.
An example of this is tonsillitis, a condition of inflammation of the tonsils, two oval-shaped pads of tissue at the back of the throat. Signs and symptoms of tonsillitis include swollen tonsils, sore throat, difficulty swallowing and tender lymph nodes on the sides of the neck. Most cases of tonsillitis are caused by infection with a common virus, but bacterial infections also may cause tonsillitis.
There are several types of oral cancers, but around 90 percent are squamous cell carcinomas. Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is a common skin cancer in humans. About 700,000 new cases of this skin cancer are diagnosed in the United States each year, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
If you notice that you have a sore that doesn’t heal inside your mouth, or a sore spot that bleeds each time you brush your teeth, you should pay attention to this, as it may be a sign of a problem area.
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If you have a growth, lump or thickening of the skin or lining of your mouth, this needs to be watched as well. Again, it may not be serious, but these things could be a sign that a problem area is developing, and should be looked at by a professional.
Having loose teeth, poorly fitting dentures, or tongue pain may be signs of gum disease, but they could also be signs of cancers or pre-cancers in development. Mouth cancer occurs when cells on your lips or in your mouth develop changes (mutations) in their DNA. These mutations allow cancer cells to continue growing and dividing when healthy cells would die. The accumulating abnormal mouth cancer cells can form a tumor. With time they may spread inside the mouth and on to other areas of the head and neck or other parts of the body.
Mouth cancers most commonly begin in the flat, thin cells (“squamous” is the word used to describe the shape of this type of cells) that line your lips and the inside of your mouth. Most oral cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, with the word “carcinoma” meaning cancer. It is not clear what causes the mutations in squamous cells that can sometimes lead to mouth cancer. But researchers have identified factors that may increase the risk of mouth cancer.
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You should make an appointment with your healthcare professional if you have any persistent signs and symptoms that bother you and last more than two weeks. The symptoms just described may not be cancers at all and may simply be part of the body’s ordinary protective system. Don’t automatically assume that you have cancers in your mouth or throat. Your healthcare professional will likely investigate other more common causes for these signs and symptoms first, such as an infection, high fever, allergies, and common irritations caused by over-indulging in certain types of foods or beverages.