Oral Cancer Prevention (PDQ®)

Last modified: 2015-04-24
Last downloaded: 2015-07-21


What is prevention?

Cancer prevention is action taken to lower the chance of getting cancer. By preventing cancer, the number of new cases of cancer in a group or population is lowered. Hopefully, this will lower the number of deaths caused by cancer.

To prevent new cancers from starting, scientists look at risk factors and protective factors. Anything that increases your chance of developing cancer is called a cancer risk factor; anything that decreases your chance of developing cancer is called a cancer protective factor.

Some risk factors for cancer can be avoided, but many cannot. For example, both smoking and inheriting certain genes are risk factors for some types of cancer, but only smoking can be avoided. Regular exercise and a healthy diet may be protective factors for some types of cancer. Avoiding risk factors and increasing protective factors may lower your risk but it does not mean that you will not get cancer.

Different ways to prevent cancer are being studied, including:

  • Changing lifestyle or eating habits.
  • Avoiding things known to cause cancer.
  • Taking medicines to treat a precancerouscondition or to keep cancer from starting.

See the following PDQ summaries for information about screening, diagnosis, and treatment of oral cancer:

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General Information About Oral Cavity Cancer and Oropharyngeal Cancer


Oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer are diseases in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the mouth or throat.

The term oral cancer is used to describe cancer that forms in the tissues of the oral cavity or the oropharynx.

Oral cavity cancer forms in any of these tissues of the oral cavity:

Anatomy of the oral cavity. The oral cavity includes the lips, hard palate (the bony front portion of the roof of the mouth), soft palate (the muscular back portion of the roof of the mouth), retromolar trigone (the area behind the wisdom teeth), front two-thirds of the tongue, gingiva (gums), buccal mucosa (the inner lining of the lips and cheeks), and floor of the mouth under the tongue.

Oropharyngeal cancer forms in tissues of the oropharynx:

  • The middle part of the pharynx (throat) behind the mouth.
  • The back third of the tongue.
  • The soft palate (the back, soft part of the roof of the mouth).
  • The side and back walls of the throat.
  • The tonsils.
Anatomy of the pharynx (throat). The three parts of the pharynx are the nasopharynx, oropharynx, and hypopharynx.

Most oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers start in squamous cells (thin, flat cells) that line the oral cavity and oropharynx. Cancer that forms in squamous cells is called squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma can form from lesions on the mucous membranes (the lining of the mouth and throat). These lesions include leukoplakia (an abnormal white patch of cells) and erythroplakia (an abnormal red patch of cells).

In Western countries, such as the United States, the most common areas for oral cancer are the tongue and the floor of the mouth.


Oral cancer is more common in men than in women.

Men are more than twice as likely as women to have oral cancer and die from it.

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Oral Cancer Prevention


Avoiding risk factors and increasing protective factors may help prevent cancer.

Avoiding cancerrisk factors may help prevent certain cancers. Risk factors include smoking, being overweight, and not getting enough exercise. Increasing protective factors such as quitting smoking, eating a healthy diet, and exercising may also help prevent some cancers. Talk to your doctor or other health care professional about how you might lower your risk of cancer.

Oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer are two different diseases, but they have some risk factors in common.


The following are risk factors for oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer:

Tobacco use 

Using tobacco is the leading cause of oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer. The risk of these cancers is about 10 times higher for current smokers than for people who have never smoked.

All forms of tobacco, including cigarettes, pipes, cigars, and chewing (smokeless) tobacco, can cause cancer of the oral cavity and oropharynx. For cigarette smokers, the risk of oral cancer increases with the number of cigarettes smoked per day. Tobacco use is most likely to cause oral cancer in the floor of the mouth, but also causes cancer in other parts of mouth and throat.

Betel quid chewing has also been shown to increase the risk of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer.

Tobacco users who have had oral cancer may develop second cancers in the oral cavity or nearby areas. These areas include the nose, throat, vocal cords, esophagus, and trachea (windpipe). This is because the oral cavity and nearby areas have been exposed to the harmful substances in tobacco, and new cancers may form over time.

Alcohol use 

Using alcohol is a major risk factor for oral cancer.

The risk of oral cancer increases with the number of alcoholic drinks consumed per day. The risk of oral cancer is about twice as high in people who have 3 to 4 alcoholic drinks per day compared to those who don't drink alcohol.

Tobacco and alcohol use 

The risk of oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer is 2 to 3 times higher in people who use both tobacco and alcohol than it is in people who use only tobacco or only alcohol.

Family history of oral cancer 

People with a family history of oral cancer have an increased risk of oral cancer.


The following is a risk factor for oropharyngeal cancer:

HPV infection 

Being infected with certain types of HPV, especially HPV type 16, increases the risk of oropharyngeal cancer. HPV infection is spread mainly through sexual contact.

The risk of oropharyngeal cancer is about 15 times higher in people with oral HPV 16 infection, compared to people without oral HPV 16 infection. Tobacco and alcohol use do not appear to further increase the risk in people with oral HPV infection.


The following is a protective factor for oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer:

Quitting smoking 

Studies have shown that when people stop smoking cigarettes, their risk of oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer decreases by one-half (50%) within 5 years. Within 10 years of quitting, their risk of oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer is the same as for a person who never smoked cigarettes.


It is not clear whether avoiding certain risk factors will decrease the risk of oral cavity cancer or oropharyngeal cancer.

It has not been proven that the following will decrease the risk of oral cavity cancer or oropharyngeal cancer:


Cancer prevention clinical trials are used to study ways to prevent cancer.

Cancer preventionclinical trials are used to study ways to lower the risk of certain types of cancer. Some cancer prevention trials are done with healthy people who have not had cancer but who have an increased risk for cancer. Other prevention trials are done with people who have had cancer and are trying to prevent another cancer of the same type or to lower their chance of developing a new type of cancer. Other trials are done with healthy volunteers who are not known to have any risk factors for cancer.

The purpose of some cancer prevention clinical trials is to find out whether actions people take can prevent cancer. These may include eating fruits and vegetables, exercising, quitting smoking, or taking certain medicines, vitamins, minerals, or food supplements.


New ways to prevent oral cancer and oropharyngeal cancer are being studied in clinical trials.


Chemoprevention is the use of drugs, vitamins, or other agents to prevent or delay the growth of cancer. One study found no decrease in the risk of oropharyngeal cancer in male smokers who took vitamin E and beta carotene supplements (pills).

Other studies of chemoprevention are being done in patients at high risk of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer. This includes patients with lesions on the mucous membranes, which may become cancer, and patients with a history of oral cancer.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about clinical trials can be found in the Clinical Trials section of the NCI Web site. Check NCI's list of cancer clinical trials for lip and oral cavity cancer prevention trials and oropharyngeal cancer prevention trials that are now accepting patients.

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Changes to This Summary (04/24/2015)

The PDQcancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

Changes were made to this summary to match those made to the health professional version.

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Back to Top Source: The National Cancer Institute's Physician Data Query (PDQ®) Cancer Information Summaries (http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq)