Tobacco products contain carcinogens, or chemicals that can cause cancer. Although smoking carries the greatest risk, smokeless tobacco products can also lead to oral cancer.

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This article will explore the relationship between tobacco and oral cancer.

We also discuss the first signs of oral cancer, the types of products with the biggest risk, and quitting smoking.

Finally, the article looks at some of the other causes of oral cancer.

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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Oral cancer, or mouth cancer, affects around 1 in 60 males and 1 in 141 females. Most people with oral cancer receive a diagnosis after age 55, but it can occur in younger people.

People who consume tobacco products have an increased risk of developing oral cancer.

A person who smokes cigarettes is about 5–6 times more likely to develop oral cancer than someone who does not. The longer a person uses tobacco products, the greater their oral cancer risk.

Toxic chemicals used in tobacco products can lead to cancer. For example, carcinogens in tobacco smoke may include:

  • formaldehyde
  • lead
  • arsenic
  • radioactive substances
  • hydrogen cyanide
  • benzene

The carcinogens in tobacco products can damage DNA. Cells with damaged DNA may begin to spread uncontrollably throughout the body.

As tobacco carcinogens enter the body through the mouth, cancer may develop in this area. Smoking, inhaling, or chewing tobacco products can expose the mouth and throat to several carcinogens.

Read more about how smoking causes cancer here.

The first signs of oral cancer typically appear in the mouth and throat. Some of the more common oral cancer symptoms include:

  • jaw pain or swelling
  • mouth or lip sores that do not go away
  • lumps around the cheeks, mouth, or lips
  • red or white patches in the mouth
  • sore throat
  • lingering mouth pain
  • difficulty swallowing or chewing
  • numbness in or around the mouth
  • loss of tongue or jaw mobility

Oral cancer can also cause ear pain or interfere with speech.

Although these symptoms can indicate oral cancer, they may be due to another condition. People experiencing these symptoms should visit a doctor for a full evaluation. This may include a physical exam, imaging tests, and a biopsy.

Find out more about what mouth cancer looks like here.

Smoking tobacco products carry the highest risk of developing oral cancer. One study found that 6 in 10 participants with oral cancer smoked.

People who smoke and consume alcohol have an even greater chance of getting this form of cancer. Researchers estimate that these people are 30 times more likely to develop oral cancer than people who do not smoke or drink alcohol.

Smokeless tobacco products such as chewing tobacco and snuff also contain carcinogens. Most of these products contain large amounts of tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNAs). These TSNAs can cause cancer of the lungs, nasal tract, mouth, and esophagus.

A recent analysis noted that people who used smokeless tobacco products had around a 34% higher risk of oral cancer.

Electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) have become increasingly popular in recent years. Although companies market them as less harmful than cigarettes, e-cigarettes also contain toxic chemicals.

Researchers have found that people who smoke e-cigarettes can also experience damage to their DNA. E-cigarettes may present less risk of oral cancer than other tobacco products, but scientists believe they have carcinogenic potential, and future studies will shed more light on this topic.

Although quitting tobacco can present challenges, it is the best way to support long-term health. Quitting tobacco can lead to positive changes such as:

  • improved heart health
  • increased lifespan
  • reduced risk of many chronic diseases

Keeping the reasons for quitting in mind can be a powerful tool. A support network of friends, family, and medical professionals can make all the difference. Several tips that may also be helpful include:

  • setting reachable goals and celebrating each milestone
  • managing stress and emotions throughout the quitting journey
  • focusing on what is motivating the decision to quit
  • improving confidence and practicing positive self-talk

A person looking to quit tobacco may benefit from support groups or one-on-one therapy sessions. They may also find that medications such as nicotine patches or varenicline help reduce cravings.

Read more about how to give up smoking here.

Although tobacco products increase the risk of oral cancer, other risk factors exist. Additional causes of oral cancer include:

  • the Epstein-Barr virus
  • family history of oral cancer
  • human papillomavirus
  • gum disease
  • deficient oral hygiene

There are many causes and risk factors that have links to oral cancer. People who believe they may be at risk of developing it should visit a medical professional to learn more.

Other factors that can also increase oral cancer risk include:

  • drinking alcohol
  • being overweight
  • having certain infections
  • having poor nutrition
  • betel nut chewing

Tobacco products contain harmful chemicals that may lead to oral cancer. Although smoking carries the greatest cancer risk, smokeless tobacco products can also increase the chance of developing oral cancer.

Other factors, including certain viral infections or poor oral hygiene, also carry a heightened oral cancer risk.

Quitting tobacco products can reduce the risk of oral cancer and many other health conditions. With the right tools and a good support network, quitting tobacco is the first step to better health.