Mouth Cancer Causes, Risk Factors & Prevention

Mouth cancer can affect anyone, but using tobacco products and regularly drinking too much alcohol greatly increase your chances.

Other major risk factors include sun exposure and tanning bed use. Infection with the sexually transmitted disease human papillomavirus (HPV) has been associated with mouth cancer as well, but there is a much stronger link between HPV and throat cancer.

Mouth Cancer Risk Factors

Tobacco

Studies have shown that as many as eight in ten people with mouth cancer are tobacco users. Tobacco includes both smoking and smokeless tobacco (snuff and chewing tobacco).

  • Pipe smoking is a particularly significant risk for lip cancer, in the area where the lips touch the pipe stem.
  • Smokeless tobacco is strongly linked with lip cancer, inner cheek cancer, and gum cancer.
  • People who are exposed to secondhand smoke are at greater risk for mouth cancer.

If you smoke or chew tobacco, you can reduce your risk for mouth cancer — and the risk to those around you — by stopping now. If you’ve been diagnosed with mouth cancer or are in treatment, it’s not too late to quit.

Learn more about Memorial Sloan Kettering’s tobacco treatment program.

Alcohol

Excessive consumption of alcohol is the other major risk factor for mouth cancer besides tobacco use. Most people who are diagnosed with mouth cancer drink heavily.

Tobacco and alcohol

The combination of tobacco and alcohol increases the risk for mouth cancer even further than either two risk factors alone. Studies have shown that people who use tobacco and alcohol together have a substantially greater risk for mouth cancer than people who don’t smoke or drink. According to the National Institutes of Health, nicotine and alcohol together account for around 80 percent of mouth cancers in men and around 65 percent of mouth cancers in women.

Betel quid and gutka

People who chew betel quid or gutka — which is more common in parts of Asia — have an increased risk of cancer of the mouth.

Gender

Mouth cancer is nearly twice as common in men as in women. This might be because men have higher rates of tobacco and alcohol use.

Age

Cancers of the mouth usually take many years to develop, so they are not common in young people. Most people are over 40 when cancer is first found in the mouth. The average age of diagnosis is around 60.

Ultraviolet light

Cancers of the lip are more common in people who spend time in the sun. Tanning beds use can also increase the risk for lip cancer.

Other risk factors

Other less common risk factors for mouth cancer include:

  • a diet low in fruits and vegetables
  • a weakened immune system
  • graft-versus-host disease, a condition that sometimes occurs after a stem cell transplant
  • lichen planus, a disease that often affects the skin
  • certain genetic syndromes, such as Fanconi anemia and dyskeratosis congenital

Ways to Prevent Mouth Cancer

Here are the top ways to reduce your mouth cancer risk:


  1. If you smoke or use other tobacco products, reach out to a tobacco cessation program, like the one offered at MSK, to get help quitting.

  2. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation.

  3. Protect yourself against HPV infection by practicing safe sex.

  4. Do not use tanning beds and avoid extended periods of time in the sun.

It’s also important to schedule regular checkups with your dentist, particularly if you do use tobacco or drink heavily. That’s because many mouth cancers are found during routine dental appointments.

Finding mouth cancer early increases your chances for a cure and minimizes the impact of cancer on your quality of life.