Can Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers Be Found Early?

There's no routine screening test or plan for oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers. Still, many pre-cancers and cancers in these areas can be found early (when they're small) during routine screening exams by a dentist, doctor, dental hygienist, or by self-exam.

Some early cancers have symptoms that cause people to seek medical or dental attention. But a lot of these cancers don't cause symptoms until they’ve grown or spread to other tissues. Or, they may cause symptoms much like those caused by problems other than cancer, such as a toothache or ear pain.

Some dentists and doctors recommend that you look at your mouth in a mirror every month to check for any changes, like white patches, sores, or lumps. This is very important if you use or have used tobacco, and/or if you routinely drink alcohol, as these put you at much higher risk for these cancers.

Regular dental check-ups that include an exam of the entire mouth are important in finding oral and oropharyngeal cancers (and pre-cancers) early.

Along with a clinical exam of the mouth and throat, some dentists and doctors may use special dyes and/or lights to look for abnormal areas, especially if you are at higher risk for these cancers. If an abnormal area is spotted, tests may also be used to help decide if they might be cancers (and need to be biopsied) or to choose the best spot to take tissue from for a biopsy. (See Tests for Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers to learn more about biopsies.) Here are some of the tests most often used:

  • One method uses a dye called toluidine blue. If the dye is spread over an abnormal area, it will turn blue.
  • Another method uses laser light. When the light is reflected off abnormal tissue, it looks different from the light reflected off normal tissue.
  • Another system uses a special light to look at the changed area after the mouth has been rinsed with a solution of acetic acid (the acid in vinegar).
  • If an abnormal area is found, sometimes it can be tested by exfoliative cytology. To do this, the change tissue is scraped with a stiff brush (brush biopsy). The cells from the scraping are sent to a lab where they're checked under the microscope to see if there are pre-cancer or cancer cells.

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.

American Society of Clinical Oncology. Oral and Oropharyngeal Cancer: Screening. 09/2017. Accessed at on February 21, 2018.

National Cancer Institute. Oral Cavity, Pharyngeal, and Laryngeal Cancer Screening (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version. February 9, 2018. Accessed at on February 21, 2018.

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

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