Can Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers Be Found Early?

Exams of the mouth and finding oral cancer early

There's no routine screening test or program 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 oral exams by a dentist, doctor, dental hygienist, or by self-exam.

Some dentists and doctors recommend that you look at your mouth in a mirror every month to check for any changes, like white patches (leukoplakia), 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 might also be used to help decide if they might be cancer (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) Here are some of the tests used most often:

  • One method uses a dye called toluidine blue. If the dye is spread over an abnormal area, it will turn a darker blue than the areas around it.
  • Another method uses fluorescent light. When the light is reflected off abnormal tissue, it looks different from the light reflected off normal tissue.
  • If an abnormal area is found, sometimes it can be tested by exfoliative cytology. To do this, the abnormal area is scraped with a stiff brush (brush biopsy). The cells from the scraping are sent to a lab where they are checked to see if there are pre-cancer or cancer cells.

And even though HPV is a risk factor for oropharyngeal cancers, there is no approved test to screen for HPV in the throat like there is for cervical cancer.

 

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.

Lingen MW, Abt E, Agrawal N, Chaturvedi AK, Cohen E, D'Souza G. Evidence-based clinical practice guideline for the evaluation of potentially malignant disorders in the oral cavity: A report of the American Dental Association. J Am Dent Assoc. 2017 Oct;148(10):712-727.e10. doi: 10.1016/j.adaj.2017.07.032. PMID: 28958308.

National Cancer Institute. Oral Cavity, Pharyngeal, and Laryngeal Cancer Screening (PDQ)–Patient Version. March 18, 2020. Accessed at www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/patient/oral-screening-pdq on September 21, 2020.

References

Lingen MW, Abt E, Agrawal N, Chaturvedi AK, Cohen E, D'Souza G. Evidence-based clinical practice guideline for the evaluation of potentially malignant disorders in the oral cavity: A report of the American Dental Association. J Am Dent Assoc. 2017 Oct;148(10):712-727.e10. doi: 10.1016/j.adaj.2017.07.032. PMID: 28958308.

National Cancer Institute. Oral Cavity, Pharyngeal, and Laryngeal Cancer Screening (PDQ)–Patient Version. March 18, 2020. Accessed at www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/patient/oral-screening-pdq on September 21, 2020.

Last Revised: March 23, 2021

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