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Can a Dentist Diagnose Oral Cancer?

Can a Dentist Diagnose Oral Cancer?

What is oral cancer?

Oral cancer is a persistent, non-stopping growth or sore in and around the mouth. Lips, cheeks, tongue, sinuses, throat, floor, and roof of the mouth are all affected. Cancer can, however, be fatal if it is not detected and treated early. The dentist performs oral screening as part of routine dental exams.

How does oral cancer develop?

Oral cancer begins in the mouth and progresses in stages. Doctors discover oral cancer when cancer cells or tumours spread to the lymph nodes in the neck. Because the cancer is small and has not spread to the lymph nodes, the first stage is easily treatable. The tumour grows larger and spreads to the lymph nodes in stages two and three of oral cancer.

In stage four, the cancer tumour has spread to the lymph nodes and surrounding organs. This disease spreads quickly, especially among people over the age of 50 who consume tobacco or alcohol. Oral cancer progresses rigorously from stage one to stage four in about five years. As a result, it is critical to detect it early, when there is a better chance of a cure.

Oral Cancer Screening

A dentist or doctor will perform an oral cancer screening to look for signs of cancer or the presence of precancerous conditions essentially in your mouth.

Oral cancer screening essentially aims to detect mouth cancer as early as possible when there is, in fact, a better chance of a cure.

During a routine dental visit, most dentists will, in fact, examine your mouth to check for oral cancer. However, some dentists may use additional tests to help identify areas of abnormal cells in your mouth.

Medical organisations disagree on whether healthy people with no risk factors for mouth cancer should be screened for oral cancer. No single oral exam or even a oral cancer screening test has been shown to reduce the risk of death from oral cancer. Nonetheless, you and your dentist may decide that an oral exam or a particular test is essential for you based on your risk factors.

Why it's done

Oral cancer screening comes with the aim of detecting mouth cancer or even the precancerous lesions that, in fact, may lead to mouth cancer at an early stage, when the cancer or lesions are easiest to remove and also most likely to be cured.

However, because no studies have shown that oral cancer screening saves lives, not all organisations agree on the advantages of an oral exam for oral cancer screening. Some groups advocate screening, while others argue that there is insufficient evidence to make a recommendation.

People who are at high risk of oral cancer may essentially benefit more from screening, though studies have not conclusively proven this. In fact, the following factors can increase the risk of oral cancer:

  • Tobacco use in any form, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, and snuff, among others
  • Heavy alcohol consumption
  • Previous diagnosis of oral cancer
  • Significant sun exposure history, which essentially increases the risk of lip cancer

In fact, the number of people diagnose (oral cancer) with mouth and throat cancer has increased in recent years for unknown reasons. A sexually transmitted infection which is known as human papillomavirus has been linked to an increasing number of these cancers (HPV).

If you're worried about your cancer risk, talk to your doctor about ways to lower your risk and also which screening tests might be proper for you.


Oral cancer screening exams have some limitations, including:

  • Oral cancer screening may result in additional tests. Many people have mouth sores, and the vast majority of these sores are not cancerous. An oral exam cannot distinguish between cancerous and non-cancerous sores.
  • If your dentist discovers an unusual sore, you may be subjected to additional testing to determine the cause. The only way in order to know for sure if you have oral cancer is, in fact, to remove some abnormal cells and test them for cancer using a procedure known as a biopsy.
  • Oral cancer screening does not detect all types of mouth cancer. Because it can be difficult to detect areas of abnormal cells simply by looking at your mouth, small cancer or precancerous lesions may go undetected.
  • There is no evidence that oral cancer screening saves lives. In fact, there is no evidence that routine oral cancer screenings can reduce the number of deaths caused by oral cancer. However, screening for oral cancer may aid in the early detection of cancers when a cure is more likely.

How you prepare

No special preparation is required for oral cancer screening. Oral cancer screening is usually done during a routine dental visit.

What you can expect

Your dentist will essentially examine the inside of your mouth for red or white patches or mouth sores during an oral cancer screening exam. Your dentist will, in fact, also feel the tissues in your mouth with gloved hands to check for lumps or other abnormalities. The dentist may also look for lumps in your throat and neck.

Additional tests

Some dentists also use special tests in addition to the oral exam in order to screen for oral cancer. It's unclear whether these tests provide any advantage over the oral exam. Special tests could include:

  • Dye for oral cancer screening. Before an exam, rinse your mouth with a special blue dye. Normal cells in your mouth may absorb the dye and turn blue.
  • Light for screening for oral cancer. During an exam, a light is shone into your mouth. The light causes normal tissue to appear dark and abnormal tissue to appear white.


If your dentist finds any signs of mouth cancer or precancerous lesions, he or she may advise you to:

  • A few weeks later, the doctor will check to see if the abnormal area is still present and to see if it has grown or changed.
  • A biopsy is a procedure that removes a sample of cells for laboratory testing to determine the presence of cancer cells. Your dentist may perform the biopsy, or you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating oral cancer.
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