April is Oral Health Month – Focus: Oral Cancer

Oral health is often considered the window to general health, thus the importance of having a healthy mouth cannot be stressed enough.  Certain diseases in the mouth can affect the rest of your body, and can even be fatal if left untreated.  One such disease is oral cancer.

Oral cancer is a disease that can affect your lips, oro-pharynx, throat, cheeks, palate, gums, salivary glands, and floor of the mouth.  Males over 40 are at higher risk, however both genders and people of all ages can be effected.

Signs and symptoms of Oral Cancer:

  • Lumps on the lips, tongue or neck
  • Prolonged sore throat or trouble swallowing
  • Ulcers in the mouth that don’t heal within two weeks
  • Red or white patches in the mouth
  • Unexplained numbness in the tongue, lips, or jaw

The key to beating oral cancer is through early diagnosis.  A major component of regular dental visits is the oral cancer screening process where all the tissues of the head, neck, and mouth are examined for possible signs of the disease – dental exams are not only for the gums and teeth.  The chances of successful treatment are higher if a suspicious lesion is detected early enough during the oral cancer screening.  If it is not detected, the oral cancer can spread to other parts of the body.

How can I prevent Oral Cancer?

Some of the factors that raise the risk of oral cancer are smoking and excessive alcohol use.  Those who smoke or drink alcohol increase their risk of getting oral cancer.  Those who do both, are at even more risk.  Quitting both is ideal, but failing that a reduction in the amount of smoking and alcohol consumption will help to lower this risk.  However, it’s important to note that 25% of oral cancers are detected in people who neither smoke nor drink – so everyone is at risk and needs to be screened regularly.

Another way to prevent oral cancer may include practising safer-sex.  It has been shown that some forms of the HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) which has been linked to cervical cancer can also cause oral cancer.

As with any sexually transmitted disease, reducing the number of sexual partners and the use of a condom may reduce the risk of trasmission of HPV.

For those who spend a lot of time outdoors (ie: construction workers or farmers), the use of lip balm with SPF is recommended to protect from the harmful effects of UV radiation.

Finally, eating more fruits and vegetables will help to reduce the risk of oral cancer – higher levels of vitamin C or carotene consumption have been associated with lower risks of oral cancer.

In light of April being declared Oral Health Month, if you haven’t seen your dentist in a while, or have a relative or friend who neglects his or her oral health, make an appointment to see a dentist for a checkup.  You could be saving a life, possibly your own.

– Dr. Michael Banh

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