Health

What is mouth cancer and can you spot the signs?

(Alamy/PA)
(Alamy/PA) (Alamy/PA)

Mouth cancer cases and deaths are higher than ever – a “devastating consequence” of NHS dental care shortages, a charity has warned.

There are now 9,860 cases of mouth cancer a year in the UK, which marks a 47% increase over the last 10 years, according to new data from the Oral Health Foundation, collected as part of November’s Mouth Cancer Action Month.

The disease claims more than 3,000 lives a year – often because it is diagnosed late, which the Oral Health Foundation warned is a “devastating consequence” of “the unavailability of essential dental services.”

Dr Nigel Carter, chief executive of the Oral Health Foundation, said: “The lack of accessible NHS dental care is not just a matter of toothaches and cavities; it’s a silent catalyst for tragedy.

“The alarming shortage of dental access is leading to late-stage diagnoses of mouth cancer, a devastating consequence of systemic neglect. Lives are hanging in the balance, and it’s time for urgent action. We cannot ignore the fact that delayed diagnosis, caused by the unavailability of essential dental services, is robbing people of their precious time and a fighting chance against this ruthless disease.”

Earlier this year, the British Dental Association (BDA) warned that NHS dentists in England were at their lowest levels since 2014/15.

And an investigation by the BBC last year found nine in 10 NHS dental practices across the UK were not accepting new adult patients.

The Oral Health Foundation is keen to highlight that raising awareness of mouth cancer is also important. Just 12% of the population are able to identify early warning signs of the disease, research by the charity found.

So what are the signs to look out for, and what else do people need to know?

What are the warning signs of mouth cancer?

Neil Sikka, a dentist at Bupa Dental Care, said the main warning signs to look out for include:

– Mouth ulcers that don’t heal within three weeks.

– Any unexplained swelling or lumps in the mouth or around the jaw.

– Any red or white patches in the mouth, which may become tender.

– Teeth becoming loose for no obvious reason.

– Difficulty swallowing.

– Developing a hoarse voice or difficulty speaking.

“It’s important to remember that these do not mean someone has mouth cancer,” Sikka added. “[But they are] things that require further investigation.”

Can you prevent mouth cancer?

Men are slightly more likely to get mouth cancer (67% of cases occur in men) and the risk also increases with age, with 78% of cases appearing in over 55s – but anyone can potentially be affected and it’s not always clear why. However, certain things are known to increase the risk, so avoiding these could help.

Sikka said the main risk factors are “smoking or chewing tobacco and drinking alcohol”, while certain types of human papilloma virus (HPV) infections of the mouth are also associated with higher rates of mouth cancer.

According to the NHS, using sunbeds could result in skin cancer around lips, and people with a weakened immune system may also be at greater risk. Following a healthy lifestyle, with a balanced, nutritious diet and regular exercise can help reduce overall cancer risk – but being aware of early warning signs and regular dental check-ups remain vital.

Why are dental check-ups so important?

According to the Oral Health Foundation, when mouth cancer is detected early the survival rate is 90%, compared with 50% for those diagnosed late. And whenever you visit the dentist, they’re not just looking at your teeth and gums – they’ll check for signs of cancer.

“My advice is to visit your dentist as regularly as possible, as they will screen for oral cancer as part of your routine check-up. And if you are concerned, your dentist will be well placed to provide you with guidance and support,” said Nyree Whitley, chief clinical officer at mydentist.

“Early detection is key to improving survival rates for mouth cancers, so if you are experiencing any issues or symptoms, it’s important you get checked out as soon as possible.”

How is mouth cancer treated?

Surgery to remove the cancerous tissue, plus radiotherapy and chemotherapy are the three main treatments for mouth cancer.

However, individual treatment plans will depend on the exact size and location of the disease, and whether it has already spread. Somebody’s general health may also be considered.

To learn more, visit mouthcancer.org