Oral Cancer Prevention (PDQ®): Prevention - Patient Information [NCI]

This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.

Oral Cancer Prevention

What is prevention?

Cancer prevention is action taken to lower the chance of getting cancer. By preventing cancer, the number of new cases of cancer in a group or population is lowered. Hopefully, this will lower the number of deaths caused by cancer.

To prevent new cancers from starting, scientists look at risk factors and protective factors. Anything that increases your chance of developing cancer is called a cancer risk factor; anything that decreases your chance of developing cancer is called a cancer protective factor.

Some risk factors for cancer can be avoided, but many cannot. For example, both smoking and inheriting certain genes are risk factors for some types of cancer, but only smoking can be avoided. Regular exercise and a healthy diet may be protective factors for some types of cancer. Avoiding risk factors and increasing protective factors may lower your risk but it does not mean that you will not get cancer.

Different ways to prevent cancer are being studied, including:

  • Changing lifestyle or eating habits.
  • Avoiding things known to cause cancer.
  • Taking medicines to treat a precancerous condition or to keep cancer from starting.

See the following PDQ summaries for information about screening, diagnosis, and treatment of oral cancer:

  • Oral Cancer Screening
  • Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer Treatment
  • Oropharyngeal Cancer Treatment
  • Cigarette Smoking: Health Risks and How to Quit

General Information About Oral Cancer

Oral cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the lips, mouth, or throat.

Oral cancer may form in any of three main areas:

  • Lips.
  • Oral cavity, which includes:
    • The front two thirds of the tongue.
    • The gingiva (gums).
    • The buccal mucosa (the lining of the inside of the cheeks).
    • The floor (bottom) of the mouth under the tongue.
    • The hard palate (the front, bony part of the roof of the mouth).
    • The retromolar trigone (the small area behind the wisdom teeth).

    Anatomy of the oral cavity; drawing shows the lip, hard palate, soft palate, retromolar trigone, front two-thirds of the tongue, gingiva, buccal mucosa, and floor of mouth. Also shown are the teeth, uvula, and tonsil.
    Anatomy of the oral cavity. The oral cavity includes the lips, hard palate (the bony front portion of the roof of the mouth), soft palate (the muscular back portion of the roof of the mouth), retromolar trigone (the area behind the wisdom teeth), front two-thirds of the tongue, gingiva (gums), buccal mucosa (the inner lining of the lips and cheeks), and floor of the mouth under the tongue.
  • Oropharynx, which includes:
    • The middle part of the pharynx (throat) behind the mouth.
    • The back third of the tongue.
    • The soft palate (the back, soft part of the roof of the mouth).
    • The side and back walls of the throat.
    • The tonsils.

Most oral cancers start in squamous cells (thin, flat cells) that line the lips, oral cavity, and oropharynx. Cancer that forms in squamous cells is called squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma can form from lesions on the mucous membranes (the lining of the mouth and throat). These lesions include leukoplakia (an abnormal white patch of cells) and erythroplakia (an abnormal red patch of cells).

In Western countries, such as the United States, the most common areas for oral cancer are the tongue and the floor of the mouth.

Oral cancer is more common in men than in women.

. Men are more than twice as likely as women to have oral cancer and die from it.

Oral Cancer Prevention

Avoiding risk factors and increasing protective factors may help prevent cancer.

Avoiding cancer risk factors may help prevent certain cancers. Risk factors include smoking, being overweight, and not getting enough exercise. Increasing protective factors such as quitting smoking, eating a healthy diet, and exercising may also help prevent some cancers. Talk to your doctor or other health care professional about how you might lower your risk of cancer.

The following are risk factors for oral cancer:

Tobacco use

Using tobacco is the leading cause of oral cancer.

All forms of tobacco, including cigarettes, pipes, cigars, and chewing (smokeless) tobacco, can cause oral cancer. For cigarette smokers, the risk of oral cancer increases with the number of cigarettes smoked per day. Tobacco use is most likely to cause oral cancer in the floor of the mouth, but also causes cancer in other parts of mouth and throat.

The risk of oral cancer is greater in people who use both tobacco and alcohol than it is in people who use only tobacco or only alcohol.

Tobacco users who have had oral cancer may develop second cancers in the oral cavity or nearby areas. These areas include the nose, throat, vocal cords, esophagus, and trachea (windpipe). This is because the oral cavity and nearby areas have been exposed to the harmful substances in tobacco, and new cancers may form over time.

Alcohol use

Using alcohol is a major risk factor for oral cancer.

The risk of oral cancer increases with the number of alcoholic drinks consumed per day. The risk of oral cancer is about twice as high in people who have 3 to 4 alcoholic drinks per day compared to those who don't drink alcohol.

The risk of oral cancer is higher in people who use both alcohol and tobacco than it is in people who use only alcohol or only tobacco.

HPV infection

Being infected with a certain type of HPV virus, especially HPV type 16, increases the risk of oral cancer. HPV infection is spread mainly through sexual contact. People who have many oral sex partners have a higher risk of HPV infection. The number of cases of oral cancer caused by HPV infection is small but increasing.

Sun exposure

Being exposed to sunlight may increase the risk of lip cancer. Lip cancer occurs most often on the lower lip.

The following is a protective factor for oral cancer:

Quitting smoking

Studies have shown that when people stop smoking cigarettes, their risk of oral cancer decreases by one-half (50%) within 5 years. Within 10 years of quitting, their risk of oral cancer is the same as for a person who never smoked cigarettes.

It is not clear whether avoiding certain risk factors will decrease the risk of oral cancer.

Certain risk factors, such as drinking alcohol, HPV infection, and sun exposure, increase the risk of oral cancer. It may seem that by avoiding these risk factors, the chance of having oral cancer would decrease, but that has not been proven.

Cancer prevention clinical trials are used to study ways to prevent cancer.

Cancer prevention clinical trials are used to study ways to lower the risk of certain types of cancer. Some cancer prevention trials are done with healthy people who have not had cancer but who have an increased risk for cancer. Other prevention trials are done with people who have had cancer and are trying to prevent another cancer of the same type or to lower their chance of developing a new type of cancer. Other trials are done with healthy volunteers who are not known to have any risk factors for cancer.

The purpose of some cancer prevention clinical trials is to find out whether actions people take can prevent cancer. These may include eating fruits and vegetables, exercising, quitting smoking, or taking certain medicines, vitamins, minerals, or food supplements.

New ways to prevent oral cancer are being studied in clinical trials.

Chemoprevention

Chemoprevention is the use of drugs, vitamins, or other agents to prevent or delay the growth of cancer. One study found no decrease in the risk of oral cancer in male smokers who took vitamin E and beta carotene supplements (pills).

Other studies of chemoprevention are being done in patients at high risk of oral cancer. This includes patients with lesions on the mucous membranes, which may become cancer, and patients with a history of oral cancer.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about clinical trials can be found in the Clinical Trials section of the NCI Web site. Check NCI's list of cancer clinical trials for lip and oral cavity cancer prevention trials and oropharyngeal cancer prevention trials that are now accepting patients.

Changes to This Summary (01 / 09 / 2013)

The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

Changes were made to this summary to match those made to the health professional version.

Questions or Comments About This Summary

If you have questions or comments about this summary, please send them to Cancer.gov through the Web site's Contact Form. We can respond only to email messages written in English.

Get More Information From NCI

Call 1-800-4-CANCER

For more information, U.S. residents may call the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Eastern Time. A trained Cancer Information Specialist is available to answer your questions.

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Search the NCI Web site

The NCI Web site provides online access to information on cancer, clinical trials, and other Web sites and organizations that offer support and resources for cancer patients and their families. For a quick search, use the search box in the upper right corner of each Web page. The results for a wide range of search terms will include a list of "Best Bets," editorially chosen Web pages that are most closely related to the search term entered.

There are also many other places to get materials and information about cancer treatment and services. Hospitals in your area may have information about local and regional agencies that have information on finances, getting to and from treatment, receiving care at home, and dealing with problems related to cancer treatment.

Find Publications

The NCI has booklets and other materials for patients, health professionals, and the public. These publications discuss types of cancer, methods of cancer treatment, coping with cancer, and clinical trials. Some publications provide information on tests for cancer, cancer causes and prevention, cancer statistics, and NCI research activities. NCI materials on these and other topics may be ordered online or printed directly from the NCI Publications Locator. These materials can also be ordered by telephone from the Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

About PDQ

PDQ is a comprehensive cancer database available on NCI's Web site.

PDQ is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. Most of the information contained in PDQ is available online at NCI's Web site. PDQ is provided as a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health, the federal government's focal point for biomedical research.

PDQ contains cancer information summaries.

The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries are available in two versions. The health professional versions provide detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions provide current and accurate cancer information.

Images in the PDQ summaries are used with permission of the author(s), artist, and/or publisher for use within the PDQ summaries only. Permission to use images outside the context of PDQ information must be obtained from the owner(s) and cannot be granted by the National Cancer Institute. Information about using the illustrations in the PDQ summaries, along with many other cancer-related images, are available in Visuals Online, a collection of over 2,000 scientific images.

The PDQ cancer information summaries are developed by cancer experts and reviewed regularly.

Editorial Boards made up of experts in oncology and related specialties are responsible for writing and maintaining the cancer information summaries. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made as new information becomes available. The date on each summary ("Date Last Modified") indicates the time of the most recent change.

PDQ also contains information on clinical trials.

A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether a certain drug or nutrient can prevent cancer. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients and those who are at risk for cancer. During prevention clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new prevention method and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new method is better than one currently being used, the new method may become "standard." People who are at high risk for a certain type of cancer may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.

Listings of clinical trials are included in PDQ and are available online at NCI's Web site. Descriptions of the trials are available in health professional and patient versions. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

Last Revised: 2013-01-09


If you want to know more about cancer and how it is treated, or if you wish to know about clinical trials for your type of cancer, you can call the NCI's Cancer Information Service at 1-800-422-6237, toll free. A trained information specialist can talk with you and answer your questions.


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