A Part of the University of Maryland Medical Center

Connect with UMGCC
Facebook Twitter YouTube Blog iPhone
Email PageEmail page Print PagePrint page

Oral Cancer Prevention

Oral Cancer Prevention

Avoiding risk factors and increasing protective factors may help prevent cancer.

Avoiding cancer risk factors such as smoking, being overweight, and lack of exercise may help prevent certain cancers. Increasing protective factors such as quitting smoking, eating a healthy diet, and exercising may also help prevent some cancers. Talk to your doctor or other health care professional about how you might lower your risk of cancer.

The following risk factors may increase the risk of oral cancer:

Tobacco use

Using tobacco is the leading cause of oral cancer.

All forms of tobacco, including cigarettes, pipes, cigars, and chewing (smokeless) tobacco, are linked to oral cancer. The risk of oral cancer increases with the number of cigarettes smoked per day. Tobacco use is most likely to cause oral cancer in the floor of the mouth, but also causes cancer in the oral cavity and oropharynx and on the lips.

The risk of oral cancer is greater in people who use both tobacco and alcohol than it is in people who use only tobacco or only alcohol.

Tobacco users who have had oral cancer may develop second cancers in the oral cavity or nearby areas, including the nose, throat, vocal cords, esophagus, and trachea (windpipe).

Results from clinical trials have shown that when a person stops smoking cigarettes, the risk of oral cancer decreases by one-half (50%) within 5 years. Within 10 years of quitting, the risk of oral cancer is the same as for a person who never used tobacco.

Alcohol use

Using alcohol is a major risk factor for oral cancer.

The risk of oral cancer increases with the number of alcoholic drinks consumed per day. Alcohol use is also a risk factor for leukoplakia (an abnormal white patch of cells) and erythroplakia (an abnormal red patch of cells). Leukoplakia and erythroplakia lesions on the mucous membranes may become cancer.

The risk of oral cancer is greater in people who use both alcohol and tobacco than it is in people who use only alcohol or only tobacco.

Results from clinical trials have not shown a decrease in the risk of oral cancer when a person stops drinking alcohol.

Sun exposure

Being exposed to sunlight may increase the risk of lip cancer, which occurs most often on the lower lip. Avoiding the sun and/or using lip balm with sunscreen or using colored lipstick may decrease the risk of lip cancer.

HPV infection

Being infected with a certain type of human papillomavirus (HPV) may increase the risk of oral cancer.

Marijuana use

Using marijuana may increase the risk of oral cancer. Marijuana use by a person with high-risk HPV infection may further increase the risk of oral cancer.

The following protective factors may decrease the risk of oral cancer:

Dietary factors

Eating a diet high in fruits and fiber-rich vegetables may lower the risk of developing oral cancer.

Chemoprevention

Chemoprevention is the use of drugs, vitamins, or other agents to prevent or delay the growth of cancer.

Studies of chemoprevention are under way in patients at high risk for oral cancer, including those with precancerous oral lesions and those with a history of oral cancer. Check NCI's Cancer Clinical Trials Registry for chemoprevention trials for cancer of the lip and oral cavity and oropharynx.

Cancer prevention clinical trials are used to study ways to prevent cancer.

Cancer prevention clinical trials are used to study ways to lower the risk of developing certain types of cancer. Some cancer prevention trials are conducted with healthy people who have not had cancer but who have an increased risk for cancer. Other prevention trials are conducted with people who have had cancer and are trying to prevent another cancer of the same type or to lower their chance of developing a new type of cancer. Other trials are done with healthy volunteers who are not known to have any risk factors for cancer.

The purpose of some cancer prevention clinical trials is to find out whether actions people take can prevent cancer. These may include eating fruits and vegetables, exercising, quitting smoking, or taking certain medicines, vitamins, minerals, or food supplements.

New ways to prevent oral cancer are being studied in clinical trials.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about clinical trials can be found in the Clinical Trials section of the NCI Web site. Check NCI's PDQ Cancer Clinical Trials Registry for lip and oral cavity cancer prevention trials and oropharyngeal cancer prevention trials that are now accepting patients.