Serious diseases, including diabetes, cancer, and eating disorders, can manifest as signs and symptoms inside of the mouth.
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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 30,000 new cases of oral cancer are diagnosed each year, and more than 8,000 deaths occur annually. The five-year survival rate for oral cancers is roughly 50 percent.
The Academy of General Dentistry (AGD) recommends that patients receive a dental exam from a general dentist every six months. Dental exams not only help to decrease a patient's risk of oral diseases, such as cavities and periodontal (gum) disease, but they also may help to diagnose other, sometimes life-threatening, medical conditions, such as oral cancer.
"The next time you visit your dentist, ask about an oral cancer screening," says AGD spokesperson Seung-Hee Rhee, DDS, FAGD. "Your dentist will feel for lumps or irregular tissue changes in your neck, head, cheeks, and oral cavity and thoroughly examine the soft tissues in your mouth, specifically looking for any sores or discolored tissues. Although you may have already been receiving this screening from your dentist, it's a good idea to confirm that this screening is a part, and will remain a part, of your regular exam."
Although oral cancer is sometimes difficult to self-diagnose, warning signs may include bleeding sores; sores that do not heal; lumps; thick, hard spots; soreness or feeling that something is caught in the throat; difficulty chewing or swallowing; ear pain; difficulty moving the jaw or tongue; hoarseness; and numbness of the tongue, as well as changes in the way teeth fit together.
"If it is not diagnosed and treated in its early stages, oral cancer can be deadly. Treatment for advanced stage oral cancer may lead to chronic pain, loss of function, permanent facial and oral disfigurement following surgery," says Dr. Rhee. "The earlier the cancer is detected and treated, the better the outcome."
Scientists are not sure of the exact cause of oral cancer. However, risk factors include tobacco use, excessive alcohol use, age, gender (oral cancer strikes men twice as often as it does women), and race (oral cancer occurs more frequently in African Americans than it does in Caucasians). New research has uncovered a connection between the human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, and oral cancer.
"Early detection is key to increasing the survival rate for cancers of the oral cavity," says Dr. Rhee. "In addition to brushing and flossing your teeth twice daily, scheduling two visits with your general dentist each year helps to ensure that any concerns are caught early on."
Reviewed: May 2012
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