Not all cases of oral cavity (mouth) and oropharyngeal (middle throat) cancer can be prevented, but the risk of developing these cancers can be greatly reduced if you take steps to avoid certain risk factors.
Use of tobacco and alcohol are among the most important risk factors for these cancers. Not starting to smoke or use oral tobacco products 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. So it's especially important to avoid smoking and alcohol as well as the combination of alcohol and smoking.
The risk of human papillomavirus (HPV) infection of the mouth and middle throat is increased in those who have oral sex and multiple sex partners. These infections are also more common in people who smoke, which may be because the smoke damages their immune system or the cells that line the mouth and throat.
HPV is very common and rarely causes symptoms. And even though 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.
Vaccines that reduce the risk of infection with certain types of HPV are 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, such as cancers of the penis, anus, vulva, vagina, and mouth and throat.
Since these vaccines are most effective if given before someone is infected with HPV, they're recommended to be given when a person is young, before they're likely to become sexually active. But certain adults can also get the HPV vaccine.
See HPV to learn more.
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.
Poor nutrition and excess body weight have been linked to oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers. Following a healthy eating pattern with more plant-based foods, such as non-starchy vegetables and whole fruit 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.
Areas of leukoplakia or erythroplakia (pre-cancer growths) in the mouth sometimes turn into cancer. Doctors often remove these areas, especially if a biopsy shows they contain areas of dysplasia (abnormal growth) when looked at closely in the lab.
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.
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.
If you wear dentures, make sure they fit properly. Avoiding sources of oral irritation (such as dentures that don’t fit properly) may help lower your risk for oral cancer.
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.
Chainani-Wu N. Diet and oral, pharyngeal, and esophageal cancer. Nutr Cancer. 2002;44(2):104-126. doi:10.1207/S15327914NC4402_01.
Chaturvedi AK, D'Souza G, Gillison ML, Katki HA. Burden of HPV-positive oropharynx cancers among ever and never smokers in the U.S. population. Oral Oncol. 2016;60:61-67. doi:10.1016/j.oraloncology.2016.06.006.
Leeman JE, Katabi N, Wong RJ, Lee NY, Romesser PB. Ch. 65 - Cancer of the Head and Neck. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa. Elsevier; 2020.
Lucenteforte E, Garavello W, Bosetti C, La Vecchia C. Dietary factors and oral and pharyngeal cancer risk. Oral Oncol. 2009;45(6):461-467. doi:10.1016/j.oraloncology.2008.09.002.
National Cancer Institute. Physician Data Query (PDQ). Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer Treatment (Adult) (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version. September 05, 2019. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/hp/adult/lip-mouth-treatment-pdq on September 29, 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 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.3322/caac.21591 on June 9, 2020.
Saslow D, Andrews KS, Manassaram-Baptiste D, et al. Human papillomavirus vaccination 2020 guideline update: American Cancer Society guideline adaptation. CA Cancer J Clin. 2020; DOI: 10.3322/caac.21616.
Tumban E. A Current Update on Human Papillomavirus-Associated Head and Neck Cancers. Viruses. 2019;11(10):922. Published 2019 Oct 9. doi:10.3390/v11100922.
Last Revised: March 23, 2021