A variety of growths that are noncancerous may occur in and around the mouth. A lump or raised area on the gums (gingiva) is not a cause for alarm. Such a lump may be caused by a gum or tooth abscess or by irritation. Noncancerous growths due to irritation are relatively common and, if necessary, can be removed by surgery. In 10 to 40% of people, noncancerous growths on the gums recur because the irritant remains. Occasionally such irritation, particularly if it persists over a long period of time, can lead to cancer. Because any unusual growths in or around the mouth can be cancer, the growths should be checked by a doctor or dentist without delay.
Ordinary warts (verrucae vulgaris) can infect the mouth if a person sucks or chews one that is growing on a finger. A different type of wart—a genital wart (see Sexually Transmitted Diseases: Genital Warts)—may be transmitted through oral sex. A doctor may remove an ordinary wart using one of several methods (see Viral Skin Infections: Treatment). Genital warts can be removed by several methods, but they tend to recur.
A slow-growing projection of bone (torus) may form in the middle of the roof of the mouth or on the lower jaw by the side of the tongue. This hard growth is both common and harmless. It appears during puberty and persists throughout life. Even a large growth can be left alone unless it gets scraped during eating or the person needs a denture that will cover the area. However, multiple bony growths in the mouth may indicate Gardner's syndrome, a hereditary disorder of the digestive tract that includes colon cancer (see Tumors of the Digestive System: Hereditary conditions).
Keratoacanthomas are noncancerous growths that form on the lips and other sun-exposed areas, such as the face, forearms, and hands. A keratoacanthoma usually reaches its full size of ½ to 1 inch (about 1¼ to 2½ centimeters) or more in diameter within 1 or 2 months, then begins to shrink after another few months and eventually disappears without treatment.
Many kinds of cysts (hollow, fluid-filled swellings) cause jaw pain and swelling. Often, they are next to an impacted wisdom tooth, and even though they are not cancerous, they can destroy considerable areas of the jawbone as they expand. Certain types of cysts are more likely to recur after surgical removal. Various types of cysts may also develop in the floor of the mouth. Often, these cysts are surgically removed because they make swallowing uncomfortable or because they are unattractive.
Odontomas are overgrowths of tooth-forming cells that look like small, misshapen extra teeth. In children, they may get in the way of normal teeth coming in. In adults, they may push teeth out of alignment. They are usually removed surgically.
Most (75 to 80%) tumors of the salivary glands are noncancerous, slow-growing, and painless. They usually occur as a single, soft, movable lump beneath normal skin or under the lining (mucosa) of the inside of the cheek. Occasionally, when hollow and fluid-filled, they are firm. The most common type (called a mixed tumor or pleomorphic adenoma) occurs mainly in women older than 40. This type can become cancerous and is removed surgically. Unless completely removed, this type of tumor is likely to grow back. Other types of noncancerous tumors are also removed surgically but are much less likely to become cancerous or to grow back once removed.
Last full review/revision November 2006 by Robert B. Cohen, DMD