Oral Cancer Risk Factors

Dental Health
By: Spirit Dental
August 14, 2018

Woman smoking cigarette in car

Oral cancer will affect more than 50,000 people in 2018 alone, and it’s estimated that more than 10,000 people will die from this terrible disease. Knowing the most common risk factors for this type of cancer might help you feel more in control, as you can take steps to reduce your odds by leading a healthier lifestyle.

Below are a few oral cancer risk factors to consider for yourself and your family.

Things You Can’t Control

When it comes to risk factors for any disease, there are sometimes a few things that you just can’t control, and this applies to oral cancer as well.

  • Age - The risk of being diagnosed with oral cancer increases with age. The average age of patients who are diagnosed is 62. Two-thirds of the people who have oral cancer are over the age of 55.
  • Genetics - Your genes might influence your risk of developing oral cancer, particularly if you have certain abnormalities that are inherited from your parents. Genetic syndromes like Fanconi anemia and Dyskeratosis congenita are a couple of examples. In fact, if you’re diagnosed with Fanconi anemia, your oral cancer risk is a whopping 500 times higher, while being diagnosed with Dyskeratosis congenita may cause you to have a very high risk of oral cancer at a younger age. Yikes!
  • Gender - Oral cancer is twice as common in men than women. However, experts think that this might have more to do with differences in lifestyle risk factors, such as smoking and drinking alcohol.

Things You Can Control

Even though there are some risk factors, like age, genetics, and gender, that you can’t really control, there are plenty of things that are in your power.

  • UV Exposure - Exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun may increase your risk of cancers of the lip, so protecting yourself with a lip balm that provides SPF protection is a smart move.
  • Diet - According to some studies, eating a diet that’s low in veggies and fruits might increase the risk of oral cancer, particularly if a poor diet leads to deficiencies in key nutrients. So be sure to eat your greens!
  • Tobacco Use - It should come as no surprise that tobacco use is also to blame for an increase in oral cancer risk (this includes cigarettes, pipes, snuff, chewing tobacco, and cigars). Roughly 80% of individuals who are diagnosed with oral cancer chew tobacco or smoke cigarettes. And just being exposed to secondhand smoke might also boost your risk of cancer as well. A great reason to quit!
  • Alcohol Use - Drinking too much alcohol might also make you more susceptible to someday being diagnosed with oral cancer. Roughly 70% of the patients who are diagnosed are considered heavy drinkers (an average of more than one drink per day if you’re a woman; an average of two or more drinks per day if you’re a man). And if you combine smoking and drinking, your risk will be even greater.

Medical Conditions and Viruses

In addition to the factors that you can and can’t control above, there are also other medical conditions, as well as viruses, that may contribute to the risk of developing oral cancer.

  • Compromised Immune System – If your immune system is suppressed because of another condition or certain medications, you might be more susceptible to oral cancer. Consider talking to your doctor to find out how you can better support your immune system to help reduce your risk.
  • HPV –Some strains of the human papillomavirus (better known as HPV) may contribute to the development of oral cancer. Roughly 25% of individuals with oral cancer are also infected with HPV. And those who have oral cancer that’s linked to this virus tend to be non-drinkers and non-smokers. Scary!
  • Graft-versus-host disease – Also known simply as GVHD, this is a condition that may develop after a stem cell transplant. Basically, the transplanted stem cells attack the patient’s cells, damaging the body’s tissues and potentially increasing the risk of oral cancer.
  • Lichen planus –If you’ve been diagnosed with severe lichen planus, which can lead to white spots or lines in the throat and mouth, you might also have a higher risk of being diagnosed with oral cancer.

Your Dentist: An Asset in Your Fight Against Oral Cancer!

You might only think of your dentist when you need to have your teeth cleaned or you need to check for cavities and gum disease, but seeing your dentist is another way that you can stay on top of your oral health. After all, in addition to looking for signs of tooth and gum problems, your dentist is also equipped to look for symptoms of cancer in the mouth. In other words, when it comes to cancer prevention and early diagnosis, your dentist is your friend!

Oral cancer is definitely frightening, but when you look at the risk factors, what you’ll realize is that there are a lot of things that you can do to reduce your odds of being diagnosed. Lead a healthy lifestyle, see your dentist regularly, and take care of yourself at home by brushing, flossing, and examining your mouth in the mirror every day. 


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