Mouth cancer: What are the causes and symptoms?
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There are multiple risk factors for developing mouth cancer, including what you drink. If a drink is described as “carcinogenic”, it means the beverage contains chemicals that can damage the DNA in cells. An accumulation of DNA damage can lead to all types of tumours, including mouth cancer.
According to the NHS, one popular drink that is carcinogenic is alcohol, which can be consumed in wines, beers, spirits, and liqueurs.
The Mouth Cancer Foundation says 30 percent of people with the disease “drink excessively”.
Drinking excessively, in this context, is regarded as “more than 21 units of alcohol per week”.
The charity clarifies: “That’s about seven large glasses of wine or 11 cans of medium-strength lager.”
Alcohol “dries out the skin of the mouth and makes it more porous”, and it’s “broken down by bacteria in the mouth to make cancer-causing chemicals”.
Combining alcohol with smoking increases the risk of mouth cancer by around “30 times”.
This is because alcohol affects the skin of the mouth, enabling tobacco toxins to pass through more easily.
And tobacco smoke “contains formaldehyde, a poisonous chemical similar to acetaldehyde produced by the breakdown of alcohol”.
The tumour can develop on the surface of the tongue, on the inside of the cheeks, the roof of the mouth, and the lips or gums.
Tumours can also develop in the glands that produce salvia, the tonsils, or the windpipe.
Symptoms of mouth cancer can include:
- Mouth ulcers that are painful and do not heal within several weeks
- Unexplained, persistent lumps in the mouth or the neck that do not go away
- Unexplained loose teeth or sockets that do not 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.
The NHS recommends seeing a “GP or dentist if these symptoms do not get better within three weeks, particularly if you drink”.
If mouth cancer is diagnosed early, a “complete cure” if often possible in up to nine in 10 cases.
Surgery tends to be the main treatment for the disease, but a combination of radiotherapy and chemotherapy might be needed.
The NHS adds: “Overall, around six in 10 people with mouth cancer will live for at least five years after their diagnosis, and many will live much longer without the cancer returning.”
In addition to alcohol consumption and smoking tobacco, another risk factor for mouth cancer is the human papilloma virus (HPV).
There are more than 100 different types of HPV, which can be caught through any type of sexual contact with another person who already has it.
“Most people will get an HPV infection at some point in their lives and their bodies will get rid of it naturally without treatment,” the NHS says.
“But some people infected with a high-risk type of HPV will not be able to clear it.”
High-risk HPV is not only linked to mouth cancer, but also cervical, anal, and penile cancer.
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