As UK mouth cancer cases hit record high, here's everything you need to know

  • Oral cancer is where a tumour develops in part of the mouth, possibly on the tongue, cheeks, roof of the mouth, lips or gums

  • While it used to be mainly associated with drinking and smoking, it is now associated with other risk factors like HPV

  • Cases of mouth cancer in the UK have increased by more than a third over the last 10 years, with many patient's symptoms often misunderstood at first

  • Here is what you need to know about the rising rates of the condition and the signs to look out for

Doctor examining man for mouth cancer. (Getty Images)
'Cases of mouth cancer continue to rise at an alarming rate,' warn experts.

Cases of mouth cancer in the UK have increased by more than a third in the last decade to reach a record high, a new study reveals.

The number of cases of the condition also known as oral cancer – where a tumour develops in part of the mouth – has more than doubled within the last generation and previous common causes like smoking and drinking are "quickly being caught up by" other lifestyle factors.

Some 8,864 people across the country were diagnosed with the disease last year, up 36% from a decade ago, with 3,034 people sadly losing their life to it within the year, according to the Oral Health Foundation's new State of Mouth Cancer Report 2022.

This shows an increase in deaths of as much as 40% in the last 10 years, and a 20% rise in the last five, the new findings coinciding with November's Mouth Cancer Action Month show.

Read more: Mum’s persistent ulcer turned out to be a form of tongue cancer

Woman having dental check up. (Getty Images)
Regular check-ups at the dentist can help to spot early signs of mouth cancer. (Getty Images)

Nearly two in three people have never checked their mouth for signs of cancer, despite it taking less than a minute. Instead, we're three times more likely to routinely check for testicular or breast cancer.

Survival rates for mouth cancer have unfortunately barely improved over the last 20 years, one of the main reasons being that far too many diagnoses are given too late. Just over half of all mouth cancers are diagnosed at stage four, when it is at its most advanced.

“While most cancers are on the decrease, cases of mouth cancer continue to rise at an alarming rate," says Dr Nigel Carter OBE, chief executive of the Oral Health Foundation.

“Traditional causes like smoking and drinking alcohol to excess are quickly being caught up by emerging risk factors like the human papillomavirus (HPV).

Infection with HPV means you are infected with the virus that can cause genital warts (or cancer)

"The stigma around mouth cancer has changed dramatically. It’s now a cancer that really can affect anybody," adds Dr Carter.

“We have seen first-hand the devastating affect mouth cancer can have on a person’s life. It changes how somebody speaks, it makes eating and drinking more difficult, and often changes a person’s physical appearance."

Read more: Secondhand smoke raises mouth cancer risk by 51%, study suggests

Who can get mouth cancer?

Man holding mouth in pain. (Getty Images)
Don't delay in seeking help from a doctor or dentist for symptoms of mouth cancer. (Getty Images)

More than two in three cases of mouth cancer develop in adults over 55, while only one in eight occur in those younger than 50. Men are more likely to get mouth cancer than women because, on average, men tend to drink more alcohol.

While less likely, it can develop in younger adults too, with HPV infection thought to be linked with the most mouth cancers in this group.

Mouth cancer symptoms

With that in mind, it's important to know what to look out for. In early stages, mouth cancer symptoms can be subtle and painless, making it easy to miss.

One woman, Charlotte Webster-Salter, 27, was told her mouth ulcers were caused by wisdom teeth and a hectic lifestyle before eventually being diagnosed with oral cancer, having to have part of her tongue removed and remade with muscle from her leg.

After her operation, she had to learn how to talk, eat and walk again through speech and physiotherapy, but she has luckily not needed any further treatment.

Watch: Woman has tongue 're-made' from leg muscles after battling mouth cancer

One in three mouth cancers are found on the tongue and 23% are discovered on the tonsil. Other places to check for mouth cancers include the lips, gums, inside of the cheeks, as well as the floor and roof of the mouth.

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

Symptoms of mouth cancer, according to the NHS, include:

  • mouth ulcers that are painful and don't heal within several weeks

  • unexplained, persistent lumps in the mouth or neck that don't go away

  • unexplained loose 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

  • changes in speech, such as a lisp

See a GP or dentist if these symptoms don't improve within three weeks, especially if you drink or smoke.

Read more: Sailor, 19, put aggressive cancer symptoms down to his strenuous Royal Navy job

Preventing mouth cancer

Grilled salmon salad with tomato, feta cheese, lettuce and so on and hand approaching. (Getty Images)
Certain lifestyle factors like diet can help to prevent mouth cancer. (Getty Images)

While cancer isn't always avoidable, the NHS lists three of the most effective ways of helping to prevent it and stopping it returning after successful treatment.

These include:

  • not smoking or using tobacco

  • not drinking more than the recommended weekly guideline for alcohol

  • eating a healthy, balanced diet that includes fresh veg (particularly tomatoes), citrus fruits, olive oil and fish

"We urge everybody to become more ‘mouth-aware’ by being able to recognise the early warning signs of mouth cancer and to be aware of the common causes," says Dr Carter.

"Most importantly, if you notice anything unusual, please don’t delay and seek help from a doctor or dentist.”

Regular dental check-ups can also help to spot the early stages of mouth cancer.

To find out more, including diagnosis, treatment and living with it, visit the NHS website.

For support, visit the Mouth Cancer Foundation or call its helpline on 01924 950950.