Oral cancer develops in the mouth, including the tongue, lips, and gums. It can also develop in the throat. About 2.8% of all cancer diagnoses in the United States are oral or throat cancer.

According to the National Cancer Institute, oral cancer is not one of the most common cancers.

However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that the risk of death is three times higher for males than females and twice as high for people who are Black or white than those who are Hispanic.

Smoking, using smokeless tobacco products, and excessive consumption of alcohol increase the chances of developing oral cancer.

In addition, human papillomavirus (HPV) can also cause oropharyngeal cancer in the throat.

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The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimate that doctors will diagnose around 54,540 new cases of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers in 2023. The society adds that about 11,580 people may die from this type of cancer this year.

Oral cancers more commonly occur with age, and the average age to receive a diagnosis is 64 years. Additionally, only about 20% of people with a diagnosis are under the age of 55 years.

These types of cancer are twice as common in males than in females. This could be due to the former being more likely to use alcohol and tobacco. Oropharyngeal cancers due to HPV are also more common in males.

Additionally, oral cancer is slightly more common in white people than in Black individuals, though researchers are not entirely sure why this is the case.

The overall risk of developing oral cancer is about 1 in 60 for males and 1 in 141 for females.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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According to the ACS, several factors can increase an individual’s risk of developing oral cancer.

While some of these factors, such as lifestyle choices, are adjustable, others, such as age or family history, are not.

Risk factors that a person can change include:

  • Tobacco use: Smoking tobacco is among the highest risk factors for all types of head and neck cancer, including oral cancer. The more someone smokes, the greater their risk. Using oral tobacco products also increases the risk of mouth cancer.
  • Alcohol use: Excessive alcohol consumption increases the risk of oral cancers. Smoking and drinking together increase the risk of developing oral cancer by about 30 times compared with someone who does not smoke or drink.
  • Diet: Some research indicates that a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables increases the risk of oral cancers.
  • Weight: Maintaining a moderate weight can reduce the risk of developing oral cancer.

Risk factors that a person cannot change include:

  • Age: Doctors diagnose most oral cancers in people over the age of 55 years. HPV-related cancers often occur in those under the age of 50.
  • Sex: Oral cancers are twice as common among males than females.
  • HPV infection: Researchers have linked HPV, particularly HPV type 16, to cancer of the oropharynx, which is a part of the throat at the back of the mouth. In DNA testing, health experts find HPV in two out of three oropharyngeal cancer cases and a lesser number of oral cavity cancers.
  • Genes: Individuals with two specific genetic syndromes are at much higher risk of oral cancer: Fanconi anemia and dyskeratosis congenita.

Healthcare professionals often do not detect oral cancer until it has spread to another location, such as the lymph nodes of the neck.

At first, it may not produce any symptoms, though some may involve mild symptoms, including:

If any of these symptoms last longer than 2 weeks, a person needs to consult a doctor.

Learn more

Learn more about oral cancer signs and symptoms.

Below are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about oral cancer.

Where does mouth cancer usually start?

Nearly all oral cancers are squamous cell cancers. This means they start in squamous cells, which are thin, flat cells that make up the mouth and throat lining.

Some cancers, known as minor salivary gland cancers, can begin in the salivary glands that line the mouth and throat.

Who is most at risk of mouth cancer?

Males have twice the risk of oral cancer than females, and those over 55 years of age most commonly receive a diagnosis.

Obesity, or having a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables, also puts an individual at an increased risk of developing oral cancer.

Lifestyle factors that significantly increase the risk of oral cancer include smoking, using oral tobacco products, and excessive alcohol consumption.

Additionally, smoking and drinking together increase the risk by around 30 times.

What age is most likely to get mouth cancer?

Because oral cancers generally take years to form, they rarely present in young people.

Most people who receive a diagnosis are over the age of 55 years, with an average age of 64.

HPV-related cancers tend to occur in a younger group, who receive a diagnosis while under the age of 50 years.

Oral cancer develops in the mouth, tongue, lips, and gums and can also occur in the throat. It is a rare cancer, representing less than 3% of all cancer diagnoses in the U.S.

Tobacco use, including smokeless tobacco, is one of the highest controllable risk factors for oral cancer.

Excessive alcohol use also significantly increases the chances of developing the disease. Other potential risk factors include being male, being over the age of 55 years, having obesity, and having a diet that lacks fruits and vegetables.

Oral cancer develops slowly, often without symptoms. A doctor should evaluate any unusual symptoms such as sores, thickening of the skin, pain, or difficulty speaking or swallowing.