Children can get oral cancer, but it is rare. Most growths in the mouth are not cancerous. However, it is possible, so it is important to know the potential signs.

More than 9 in 10 tumors found in the oral cavity in children are benign. When oral cancer does occur in children, it is usually lymphoma or sarcoma. Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), which is the most common type of oral cancer in adults, is rare in children.

Regular dental checkups can help monitor for any unusual symptoms affecting the mouth. Whether cancerous or not, any growths that affect a child’s ability to speak or swallow require treatment.

Keep reading to learn more about how often children get oral cancer, the symptoms, diagnostic process, treatment options, and survival rate.

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Children rarely get oral cancer. Most people who develop oral cancer are over 40 years old, although it can occur in people of any age.

Oral cancer causes atypical growths, or tumors, but cancer is not the only explanation for such growths. Some tumors are benign, meaning they are not cancerous.

Some of the risk factors for oral cancer in adults may not apply to children. For example, children are unlikely to have a higher risk due to tobacco or alcohol use.

The risk factors for oral cancer in children include:

The symptoms of oral cancer can include:

  • a sore in the mouth or on the lips that does not heal
  • a lump in the mouth, on the lips, or tongue
  • thickened skin
  • white or red patches in the mouth
  • bleeding or pain

If the cancer is near the base of the tongue or throat, it may also interfere with speaking or swallowing.

It is important to note that these symptoms are not exclusive to cancer. There are a number of other potential explanations. For example, injury, canker sores, and other conditions can have similar symptoms.

However, if these symptoms arise and do not get better on their own, caregivers should speak with a doctor or dentist.

During a consultation, a doctor or dentist will ask the child or their caregiver about their symptoms. They will perform an examination of the mouth to look at any unusual growths or patches. While wearing gloves, they will feel around the mouth, and they may feel the jaw and neck, too.

If cancer is a possibility, they may order tests, such as:

  • X-ray: This can help doctors assess the health of the jaw and facial bones, as well as the teeth.
  • MRI scan: This takes a more detailed look at the soft tissues and bones of the oral cavity, including the gums, palate, and neck.
  • CT scan: This test looks at the head and neck in very thin slices, making it easier to see abnormalities.
  • PET scan: This is a very specific test that looks for cancerous cells in the body. Doctors inject a small amount of radioactive material into a vein, and then the scanner rotates around the body while taking pictures. Cancerous cells will show brighter in these pictures.
  • Biopsy: This involves removing a small sample of tissue and sending it to a laboratory for analysis.

In adults, doctors use a staging system to determine how advanced the cancer is. However, there is no standard staging system for children with oral cancer.

The results of exams and testing guide dentists, doctors, and surgeons’ treatment decisions.

Oral cancer treatment can be different for children than for adults. Standard treatments that doctors already use include:

  • Surgery: This is the most common treatment for oral cancer in children. It is also the treatment doctors may use if the growth is not cancerous.
  • Radiation therapy: This treatment uses radiation over a specific part of the body to kill cancer cells or stop them dividing.
  • Chemotherapy: This involves taking medications, either via tablets or an IV infusion, to kill cancer cells or stop them from growing. Chemotherapy can reach cancer throughout the body, so it is an option if the cancer has spread or become advanced.

Because the condition is rare, children may also have the opportunity to take part in clinical trials to test new approaches. This involves beginning a treatment regimen and reporting any side effects.

Close follow-up and monitoring are necessary after the completion of treatment to monitor for signs the cancer could be coming back. If this happens, doctors can try more treatments.

Due to the low number of cases, there are not many studies on survival rates for children with oral cancer. However, in adults, the 5-year survival rates for lip, tongue, or oral cavity cancer are relatively good if a person receives early diagnosis and treatment.

For example, for localized lip cancer in adults, the 5-year relative survival rate is 94%. For tongue cancer, it is 84%, and for cancer on the floor of the mouth, it is 73%.

5-year survival rates indicate what percentage of people live for at least 5 years after their diagnosis in comparison to people the same age who do not have cancer.

For children, the outlook may be different.

In an older 2010 study of 54 people with SCC under the age of 20 and more than 22,000 adult cases, the children had significantly better survival rates than the adults. However, more research is necessary.

Children can get oral cancer, but it is very uncommon. More than 9 in 10 of the growths children can get in their mouths are not cancerous.

However, it is not impossible for children to get oral cancer. As a result, caregivers and medical professionals should still monitor for any unusual lesions or symptoms.

If a child has a new growth in the mouth, such as a lump, sore, thickened skin, or red or white patches that do not get better, caregivers should seek medical attention.