Mouth cancer (oral cancer)

Mouth cancer is also known as oral cancer. Most cases occur in older adults aged 50 to 74. See your GP or dentist if you have symptoms, (see below,) that don't heal within three weeks, particularly if you drink or smoke heavily.

About mouth cancer

Mouth cancer can develop in most parts of the mouth, including the lips, gums and occasionally the throat.

Cancer of the tongue
Mouth cancer of the tongue
Cancer of the mouth
Mouth cancer growing from the lining of the mouth

Tumours can also develop in the glands that produce saliva, the tonsils at the back of the mouth, and the part of the throat connecting your mouth to your windpipe (pharynx). These are less common.

Symptoms of mouth cancer

Symptoms of mouth cancer include:

  • sore mouth ulcers that don't heal within several weeks
  • unexplained, persistent lumps in the mouth that don't go away
  • unexplained, persistent lumps in the neck that don't go away
  • unexplained looseness of teeth, or sockets that don't heal after extractions
  • unexplained, persistent numbness or an odd feeling on the lip or tongue
  • sometimes, white or red patches on the lining of the mouth or tongue – these can be early signs of cancer, so they should also be investigated
  • changes in speech, such as a lisp

Mouth ulceration on the roof of the mouth
See your GP or dentist if you have sore mouth ulcers that don't heal within several weeks

When to seek medical advice

You should see your GP or dentist if the symptoms above don't heal within three weeks, particularly if you drink or smoke heavily.

Causes of mouth cancer

Things that increase your risk of developing mouth cancer include:

Treating mouth cancer

There are three main treatment options for mouth cancer:

  • surgery – where the cancerous cells are surgically removed, along with a tiny bit of the surrounding normal tissue or cells to make sure the cancer is completely removed
  • radiotherapy – where high-energy X-rays are used to kill cancerous cells
  • chemotherapy – where powerful medications are used to kill cancerous cells

These treatments are often used in combination. The health professional looking after your care will discuss treatment options with you.

Preventing mouth cancer

The three most effective ways of preventing mouth cancer developing, or preventing it coming back after successful treatment, are:

It is recommended you drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week. If you drink as much as 14 units a week, it's best to spread it evenly over three or more days.

It's also important that you have regular dental check-ups – dentists can often spot the early stages of mouth cancer.

Who's affected by mouth cancer

Most cases (66.38 per cent) of mouth cancer in Northern Ireland occur in older adults aged 50 to 74; about two of every three cases.

Around one in eight cases (11.97 per cent) affect people younger than 50.

Mouth cancer can occur in younger adults. HPV infection is thought to be associated with the majority of cases that occur in younger people.

Cancer of the mouth is also more common in men than in women.


If mouth cancer is diagnosed early, a cure is often possible in up to 90 per cent of cases using surgery alone.

In cases where the cancer is larger, there's still quite a good chance of a cure.

But surgery should be followed by radiotherapy or a combination of radiotherapy and chemotherapy to give the best chance.

Overall, about 51 per cent of people with mouth cancer in Northern Ireland will live at least five years after their diagnosis. Many will live much longer without the cancer returning.

Living with mouth cancer

It's not always easy to talk about cancer, either for you or your family and friends.

Being open about how you feel and what your family and friends can do to help may put them at ease.

If you have questions, your GP or nurse may be able to reassure you. You may find it helpful to talk to a trained counsellor or psychologist, or someone at a specialist helpline. Your GP surgery will have information about these.

Head and neck cancers

Mouth cancer is a type of cancer that comes under the umbrella term, ’cancers of the head and neck’.

Other types of head and neck cancer include:


The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was published April 2018

This page is due for review February 2020

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