How Do Dentists Screen for Oral Cancer?

November 1, 2021

While oral cancer (i.e., oral cavity and oropharynx cancers collectively) accounts for almost 3% of all cancers diagnosed annually in the United States, it is responsible for 1.8% of all cancer deaths. 

The death rate associated with oral cancer is particularly high because it is generally not discovered until late in its development. Early-stage symptoms of oral cancer are often painless, such as a white or red patches of tissue or a lesion resembling a common canker sore, so many patients assume they're non-threatening. However, dental professionals can easily see and feel problematic tissue changes frequently overlooked by untrained eyes. Consequently, the importance of early detection is one more reason that regular dental check-ups are vital to overall health. 

What happens during an oral cancer screening?

During an oral cancer screening, your dentist will perform an extra-oral exam of the head and neck as well as an intra-oral exam of the lips, cheeks, tongue, palate, floor of mouth, and gum tissues. Dentists check for any abnormalities, including:

  • Asymmetries
  • Lumps or bumps 
  • Rough spots
  • Crusts
  • Eroded areas 
  • Velvety white, red, or speckled white-and-red patches 
  • Unexplained bleeding 

What if they find something suspicious? 

If your dentist does catch something in the initial screening, they may use one of the following diagnostic tests to obtain additional information:

Oral cancer screening dye – This uncomplicated test makes it easier to identify abnormal cells. Dentists have patients rinse with a special blue dye before an exam. Abnormal cells in the mouth absorb the color, which makes them stand out. 

Oral cancer screening light – This non-invasive tool illuminates normal tissue using a blue light frequency while pre-cancerous or cancerous spots remain dark.

Oral brush biopsy – With this simple method, dentists use a small brush to gather cell samples from suspicious areas in the mouth with little to no pain. The specimen is sent to a laboratory for analysis. If cancer is found, a traditional biopsy will be recommended to confirm the results.

Your dentist may also opt to send you to a specialist, such as an oral and maxillofacial surgeon, for a traditional biopsy.

How can I prevent oral cancer?

Aside from avoiding tobacco and excessive alcohol consumption, the importance of self-awareness cannot be overstated. Patients should contact their dentist if they experience any of the following symptoms for longer than two weeks:

  • A sore that bleeds or doesn't heal
  • A growth, lump, or thickening of the skin or lining of your mouth
  • Tongue pain or numbness
  • Jaw pain or stiffness
  • Difficulty or painful chewing, speaking or swallowing (the sensation of food getting caught in your throat)
  • Prolonged hoarseness
  • Numbness in the oral / facial region
  • Persistent earache in the same ear
  • Loose teeth with no apparent dental cause

It's also critical for patients to have an open line of communication with their dental practice. Be sure to let us know if you've experienced any changes in your medical history - even if you think it's not important. This is also where patient transparency comes into play. Be honest about your tobacco and alcohol usage; we're not here to judge! 

Contact Our Office

If you're experiencing any of the symptoms noted above or think you're at risk for oral cancer, our team is here to help. Contact our dental practice to schedule an appointment.

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