Oral Cancer: The Risks and What You Can Do About It


• Oral cancer is primarily caused by tobacco and alcohol use and is more common in people over 40.

• Sun exposure and genetics can also increase the risk of oral cancer.

• Men are twice as likely as women to develop this type of cancer.

• HPV infection is a significant risk factor for oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (OPSCC).

• The best way to reduce the risk of oral cancer is by visiting a dentist and getting screened regularly.

Oral cancer can affect various parts of the mouth, including the lips, gums, tongue, and cheeks. It is most common in people over 40, and smoking and heavy alcohol use are major risk factors. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, tobacco use is responsible for about 75% of all oral cancer diagnoses.

Risk Factors For Oral Cancer

While oral cancer is not as common as other types of cancer, it is still a severe disease that can significantly impact your life. Here’s a look at some of the risks associated with oral cancer and how to reduce your risk.

A man smoking outside

Tobacco Use and Alcohol Consumption

As stated earlier, the primary risk factor for oral cancer is tobacco use, including cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products such as chewing or snuff. It’s estimated that 75% of all cases of oral cancer are linked to smoking or other forms of tobacco use. In addition, alcohol consumption is also linked to an increased risk of developing oral cancer. So combining these two habits can dramatically increase your chances of getting this disease.

Sun Exposure and Genetics

In addition to tobacco and alcohol use, environmental factors, like sun exposure, may also increase your chances of developing oral cancer. People who spend a lot of time in the sun without proper protection are more likely to develop this type of cancer, especially if they have fair skin or are prone to freckles or sunburns. Finally, genetics can also increase your risk; having a family history of oral cancer may put you at greater risk for developing the disease yourself.

Age & Gender

Oral cancers occur more often in people over 50; however, this condition can also affect younger adults and children. Additionally, men are twice as likely as women to develop oral cancers due to higher rates of smoking and drinking among men compared with women across all age groups.

HPV Infection

Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is a significant risk factor for developing oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (OPSCC). This type of HPV-related mouth and throat cancer has been rising recently, especially among younger adults who may not have other traditional risk factors like smoking or drinking alcohol. OPSCC now accounts for over one-third of all new cases of head and neck cancers among adults between 20-44 years old.

Dealing With Oral Cancer

Thankfully there are various ways you can deal with oral cancer. Here are some of them:

Dental visit for checkup

Visit the Dentist

The first step is to visit a local dentist. A general dentist can diagnose oral cancer in its early stages and refer you to a specialist for further diagnosis and treatment. This first step can make a huge difference in preventing and successfully treating oral cancer.

Targeted Drug Therapy

One of the newest treatments for oral cancer is targeted drug therapy. This type of therapy uses drugs that specifically target cancer cells, leaving healthy cells unharmed. Targeted drug therapy is often used with other treatment methods, such as surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy.

One targeted drug currently being studied for its effectiveness in treating oral cancer is cetuximab (Erbitux). Cetuximab works by binding to a protein called epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), found on the surface of many cancer cells. By binding to EGFR, cetuximab prevents the protein from working properly, ultimately leading to the cancer cell’s death.


Immunotherapy is another treatment option promising in clinical trials for oral cancer patients. Immunotherapy works by stimulating the immune system to fight infection and disease better. Several types of immunotherapy include monoclonal antibody therapy, checkpoint inhibitor therapy, and adoptive T-cell transfer.

One type of immunotherapy currently being studied for its potential in treating head and neck cancers is nivolumab (Opdivo). Nivolumab blocks a protein called PD-1, which usually inhibits the immune system’s ability to fight infections and disease. By blocking PD-1, nivolumab allows the immune system to recognize better and attack cancer cells.

Oral cancer is a devastating disease that can impact your life in many ways. The good news is that there are treatments available and steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing this type of cancer. By getting treatment and reducing your risk factors, you may be able to significantly reduce the likelihood of developing oral cancer.

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