According to the National Cancer Institute, oral cancer strikes 30,000 Americans each year and 25 percent of those cases are fatal due to late detection. The most frequent cause of oral cancer is alcohol and tobacco use, although sun exposure and poor diet may also play a role in its development. Persistent infection with certain strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a group of viruses that can be sexually transmitted and typically do not cause symptoms, has also been identified as a risk factor for oral and other cancers. Because oral cancer can be successfully treated when caught early, any suspicious symptoms warrant a trip to the doctor or dentist.
Oral cancer may appear as discolored patches in the mouth or on the lips. The patches are commonly white, red or both red and white. White patches may become malignant, red and white patches are even more likely to become malignant and red patches frequently become malignant, according to the National Cancer Institute. Brown or dark colored patches may be signs of melanoma.
A sore that does not heal may be a sign of oral cancer. Cancerous tumors may feel hard and look like ulcers or open sores.
Oral cancers may or may not cause pain. It is common for cancerous lesions to be painless for a quite a while after they develop, which makes prompt medical evaluation of suspicious areas important even if they are not painful. However, a person with oral cancer may experience pain when swallowing, and denture wearers may have trouble wearing their dentures.
Oral cancer may cause bleeding in the mouth. Teeth may also become loose. Someone suffering from oral cancer may seem to have a persistent earache. Numbness of the lower lip and chin is also possible, and a lump in the neck could be related to oral cancer.