Taking steps such as avoiding tobacco, practicing good oral hygiene, and getting a human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination may help people lower their risk of developing oral cancer.

Tobacco and alcohol consumption, exposure to sunlight, and certain strains of HPV can increase a person’s risk of developing oral cancer.

While it may not be possible to completely eliminate the risk, adopting certain lifestyle changes and being aware of risk factors can significantly lower the likelihood of developing oral cancer.

This article looks at various ways to lower the risk of oral cancer, early symptoms that may indicate cancer, and when to speak with a doctor.

A doctor looking at medical imaging of someone's mouth to detect oral cancer.-1Share on Pinterest
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Tobacco use can increase a person’s risk of oral cancer, including oral squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC), the most common type of oral cancer. People may use tobacco in various forms, including:

  • cigarettes
  • cigars
  • smokeless tobacco
  • pipes

Tobacco smoke contains chemicals that can damage the cells in the mouth, throat, and other body parts. Damaged cells may not grow as they are meant to and can develop into cancer.

Smokeless tobacco products may also increase the risk of cancer in areas they contact, such as the lips, gums, and inner cheeks.

A 2020 literature review also highlights the combination of tobacco use with alcohol consumption as a primary risk factor for oral cancer.

Quitting or never starting tobacco use is a crucial step in reducing the risk, even after years of heavy use.

HPV is a group of viruses that can infect the genital area, mouth, and throat.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HPV causes 7 in 10 oropharyngeal cancers, which are cancers affecting the back of the throat, in the United States.

A 2018 review highlights certain strains, including HPV types 16 and 18, that may increase the risk of oral cancers.

HPV vaccines protect against the most common high-risk HPV strains. Vaccination can help to reduce the risk of infection by certain HPV strains, thus lowering the risk of developing oral cancer.

According to a 2022 article, chewing areca nuts is a significant risk factor for oral cancer. The areca nut is an ingredient in betel quid, which the article authors suggest is responsible for around half of Taiwan’s reported oral cancer cases.

Areca nut and betel quid chewing may also link to worse outcomes among people with oral cancer.

According to a 2019 literature review, there is a strong link between poor oral hygiene and oral cancers. Poor oral hygiene may also increase the risk of head and neck cancer.

The American Dental Association highlights the following steps to maintain good oral hygiene:

  • brush teeth twice a day
  • use fluoride toothpaste
  • use floss daily to clean between teeth
  • replace toothbrushes every 3–4 months
  • eat a balanced, healthy diet
  • attend regular dental checkups

According to a 2021 article, the micronutrients in certain fruits, vegetables, fish, and animal products may help prevent oral cancer and other cancers.

The article’s authors suggest this is due to anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiproliferative, and anti-angiogenic properties.

However, further research is necessary to understand the link between diet and oral cancer.

Learn how to build and consume a balanced diet.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), lip cancers are more common among people who experience more sun exposure, including people who work outdoors.

When spending time outdoors, especially in sunny environments, a person should protect lips from excessive sun exposure by using lip balms with sunscreen or wearing a wide-brimmed hat.

The following early symptoms and signs can indicate the presence of oral cancer:

If someone experiences early symptoms of oral cancer for more than two weeks, the ACS recommends speaking with a healthcare professional.

A doctor or dentist can perform a thorough examination and recommend any necessary tests or referrals.

Measures such as avoiding tobacco and alcohol, getting an HPV vaccination, and eating a balanced, healthy diet may help people reduce their risk of oral cancer.

Attending regular dental checkups and an awareness of risk factors and early symptoms may also help people to catch and treat oral cancer in the earliest stages.

People should speak with a doctor if they experience symptoms of oral cancer for more than two weeks.