How Your Dental Visit Can Prevent or Detect Cancer

Author: Marisa Healy, BSN, RN
Content Contributor: Allyson Distel, MPH
Last Reviewed: February 22, 2024

Part of your routine dental visit is a cancer screening test.

What do dentists do to check for oral cancer?

Dentists and dental hygienists look at your mouth, tongue, and nearby tissue much more closely than you do. They can find pre-cancerous or cancerous spots in the early stages of growth. Cancer of the mouth is called oral cancer.

An oral cancer screening exam is more than looking around your mouth. Your dentist will look at and feel your face, neck, lips, mouth, tongue, thyroid gland, salivary glands, and lymph nodes. If you have dentures or partials, they should be taken out so that your whole mouth can be checked.

What are the risks of oral cancer?

Oral cancers in younger people without these risk factors have been on the rise. This is due to the high rate of human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted virus that is known to cause cancers of the oral cavity, cervix, anus, penis, vagina, and vulva (learn more about HPV and cancer). Oral cancers can happen in people with no risk factors at all, so screening is important for everyone.

You should be aware of the signs of oral cancers and tell your healthcare provider if you have any. Many of these can be caused by non-cancerous (benign) conditions, but you should still visit your healthcare provider for further testing.

Signs to report:

  • A sore that bleeds easily or does not heal.
  • A change in color to your oral tissue.
  • A lump, thickening, rough spot, crust, or small eroded (worn away) area.
  • Pain, tenderness, or numbness anywhere in the mouth or on the lips.
  • Having a hard time chewing, swallowing, speaking, or moving your jaw or tongue.

Resources and Further Reading

Hernandez, B. Y., Zhu, X., Goodman, M. T., Gatewood, R., Mendiola, P., Quinata, K., & Paulino, Y. C. (2017). Betel nut chewing, oral premalignant lesions, and the oral microbiome. PloS one, 12(2), e0172196.

National Institute of Health: National Cancer Institute. (2022). Oral cavity and nasopharyngeal cancers screening. Retrieved from

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