Merck Manual

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Quick Facts

Mouth and Throat Cancer

By

The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision May 2020| Content last modified May 2020
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What is mouth and throat cancer?

Mouth and throat cancer is cancer that starts in or around your mouth or throat. It could affect your lips, tongue, tonsils, the roof of your mouth, inside your cheeks, or the back of the throat. (Cancer in your voice box or larynx, though, is laryngeal cancer.)

  • Mouth and throat cancers may look like open sores, lumps, or oddly colored areas in your mouth or throat

  • Doctors can tell you have mouth or throat cancer with a biopsy (removing part of the tissue to look at under a microscope)

  • Doctors usually treat mouth and throat cancer with surgery and radiation

What causes mouth and throat cancer?

Doctors don't know the exact cause of mouth and throat cancer. But people have a higher chance of having mouth or throat cancer if they:

  • Use a lot of tobacco, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chew, or snuff

  • Drink a lot of alcohol—your chance of getting this cancer is higher if you drink more than 6 ounces of hard liquor, 3 glasses of wine, or 3 beers every day

  • Are infected by certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV), a common virus that causes genital warts and can spread through oral sex

People who use both tobacco and alcohol heavily have an even higher chance of getting mouth or throat cancer than people who use either separately.

Cancer on the lips is usually caused by exposure to sunlight.

What are the symptoms of mouth and throat cancer?

Your symptoms depend on exactly where in your mouth or throat the cancer is.

If you have mouth cancer, you may have no symptoms for a long time except for:

  • A painless red or white patch in your mouth that can be either flat or slightly raised

As the cancer gets bigger, you may have:

  • Pain

  • Trouble speaking

  • Trouble swallowing

  • A lump in your neck

If you have throat cancer, you may have:

  • Pain in your ear or throat, especially when you swallow

  • Trouble swallowing and speaking

  • A lump in your neck

Sometimes when you have mouth or throat cancer you’ll lose weight because it hurts to eat.

How can doctors tell if I have mouth or throat cancer?

Doctors may use a special mirror or camera to look in your mouth or throat. They may also do a biopsy. With a biopsy, they remove a sample of your tissue for testing.

If you have mouth or throat cancer, doctors will do tests to see how big it is and if it has spread to other parts of your body. They'll do tests such as:

How do doctors treat mouth and throat cancer?

Doctors usually treat mouth and throat cancers with surgery and radiation. Which treatment to use depends on the size of your cancer and where it is.

Doctors may use:

  • Surgery to take out your cancer and surrounding tissue (such as the lymph nodes behind your jaw)

  • Radiation therapy, especially if the cancer has spread to your lymph nodes

  • Chemotherapy for more advanced cancer

If caught early, the cancer can be removed with surgery alone.

Any dental problems should be treated before you start cancer treatment. Cancer treatment may make dental problems worse.

Sometimes surgery changes the shape or look of your face. Doctors will use the latest methods to keep the way you look as unchanged as possible.

Radiation to your mouth may cause:

  • Loss of taste

  • Dry mouth

  • Trouble swallowing and speaking

  • Dental problems, if your teeth were exposed to radiation

How can I prevent mouth or throat cancer?

To lower the chance of getting mouth or throat cancer:

  • Don’t use tobacco

  • Don’t drink large amounts of alcohol

  • Visit a dentist twice per year for check-ups to take care of your teeth—your dentist also checks for abnormalities that could be mouth cancer

  • Avoid too much sun exposure (to prevent lip cancer)

  • Get the HPV vaccine—it's usually given in childhood or early teens

NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
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