Can Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers Be Prevented?

Avoid risk factors

Not all cases of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer can be prevented, but the risk of developing these cancers can be greatly reduced by avoiding certain risk factors.

Avoid smoking and alcohol

Tobacco and alcohol are among the most important risk factors for these cancers. Not starting to smoke is the best way to limit the risk of getting these cancers. Quitting tobacco also greatly lowers your risk of developing these cancers, even after many years of use. Heavy alcohol use is a risk factor on its own. It also greatly increases the cancer-causing effect of tobacco smoke. So it's especially important to avoid alcohol as well as the combination of drinking and smoking.

Avoid HPV infection

The risk of infection of the mouth and throat with the human papillomavirus (HPV) is increased in those who have oral sex and multiple sex partners. But HPV is very common and rarely causes symptoms, so having sex with even one other person can put you at risk.

These infections are also more common in smokers, which may be because the smoke damages their immune system or the cells that line the oral cavity.

Although HPV infection is linked to most cases of oropharyngeal cancer, most people with HPV infections of the mouth and throat do not go on to develop this cancer.

In recent years, vaccines that reduce the risk of infection with certain types of HPV have become available. These vaccines were originally meant to lower the risk of cervical cancer, but they have been shown to lower the risk of other cancers linked to HPV as well, such as cancers of the penis, anus, vulva, and vagina. HPV vaccination also likely lowers the risk of mouth and throat cancers, but this has not yet been proven.

Since these vaccines are only effective if given before someone is infected with HPV, they're given when a person is young, before they're likely to become sexually active.

See our HPV information to learn more.

Limit exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light

Ultraviolet radiation is an important and avoidable risk factor for cancer of the lips, as well as for skin cancer. If possible, limit the time you spend outdoors during the middle of the day, when the sun’s UV rays are strongest. If you are out in the sun, wear a wide-brimmed hat and use sunscreen and lip balm with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30.

Eat a healthy diet

A poor diet has been linked to oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers, although it’s not exactly clear what substances in healthy foods might be responsible for reducing the risk of these cancers. Following a healthy eating pattern may help lower your risk of these cancers (and many others). 

The American Cancer Society recommends following a healthy eating pattern that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and that limits or avoids red and processed meats, sugary drinks, and highly processed foods. In general, eating a healthy diet is much better than adding vitamin supplements to an otherwise unhealthy diet. See the American Cancer Society Guidelines for Diet and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention for our full guidelines.

Wear properly fitted dentures

Avoiding sources of oral irritation (such as dentures that don’t fit properly) may help lower your risk for oral cancer.

Treat pre-cancerous growths

Areas of leukoplakia or erythroplakia in the mouth sometimes progress to cancer. Doctors often remove these areas, especially if a biopsy shows they contain areas of dysplasia (abnormal growth) when looked at under a microscope.

But removing areas of leukoplakia or erythroplakia doesn't always keep someone from getting oral cavity cancer. Studies have found that even when these areas are completely removed, people with certain types of erythroplakia and leukoplakia still have a higher chance of developing a cancer in some other area of their mouth.

This may be because the whole lining of the mouth has probably been exposed to the same cancer-causing agents that led to these pre-cancers (like tobacco). This means that the entire area may already have early changes that can lead to cancer. This concept is called field cancerization.

It's important for people who have had these areas removed to continue having check-ups to look for cancer and new areas of leukoplakia or erythroplakia.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Rock CL, Thomson C, Gansler T, et al. American Cancer Society guideline for diet and physical activity for cancer prevention. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. 2020;70(4). doi:10.3322/caac.21591. Accessed at on June 9, 2020.


Rock CL, Thomson C, Gansler T, et al. American Cancer Society guideline for diet and physical activity for cancer prevention. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. 2020;70(4). doi:10.3322/caac.21591. Accessed at on June 9, 2020.

Last Medical Review: March 9, 2018 Last Revised: June 9, 2020

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