Check Your Mouth: How A Dental Exam Can Save Your Life

Imagine visiting your registered dental hygienist for your “just a cleaning” appointment and you’re informed that you need to consult with a specialist because a suspicious lesion had been detected in your mouth.

Yeah, this actually happens in the dental chair during “just a cleaning” visits.

When I say we do more than just clean teeth, it’s not just a rehearsed response deemed to make my job seem more important than it is.  I’m actually stating pure FACTS. PeriodT!

April is Oral Cancer Awareness month. Since public knowledge of oral cancer is low, I have decided to use this time to help increase awareness of cancers of the mouth. 

According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 54,010 new cases of oral cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. during 2021, and 10,850 people will die of this disease. While tobacco and alcohol consumption are the major risk factors, young nonsmokers are increasingly being diagnosed with oral cancer due to the HPV connection. Stopping the spread of the virus can not be stopped; however, lives can be saved through early detection via professional screenings and increased public awareness.

When diagnosed, a vast majority of the cancers are in advanced stages or have metastasized. There is a 5-year survival rate for 66% of those diagnosed. The death rate is high due to the discovery occurring late in the cancer development stage. Men are more likely to be diagnosed than women.

So, do you Check Your Mouth?

I recommend completing routine self-checks each month.

Using a bright light and mirror, follow these steps:

  • Remove any dentures
  • Look and feel inside the lips and the front of gums
  • Tilt head back to inspect and feel the roof of your mouth
  • Pull the cheek out to see its inside surface as well as the back of the gums
  • Pull out your tongue and look at all surfaces
  • Feel for lumps or enlarged lymph nodes (glands) in both sides of the neck including under the lower jaw

Oral cancer symptoms include:

  • Persistent mouth pain or persistent mouth sores that do not heal
  • Unexpected numbness or tingling
  • Difficulty swallowing, chewing, or moving the mouth or tongue
  • Lumps in the neck or cheek
  • Loose teeth
  • Jaw or ear pain
  • Persistent sore throat
  • White, red or white/red patches of skin in the mouth

Aside from self-checks, I also recommend having professional oral cancer screening, which should be performed at your regular visits to the dentist.  Has your dental healthcare provider ever completed an oral cancer screening?

As a preventive specialist, I would rather be proactive than reactive; therefore, I complete these screenings at every hygiene visit.  Of my almost 11 years of practice, I’ve had several patients tell me that I saved their lives because their cancer was detected sooner rather than later.

There is no special preparation for oral cancer screening. It is usually completed during a routine dental appointment.

During an oral cancer screening, your dental health provider will look over the inside of your mouth to check for red or white patches or mouth sores. Using gloved hands, your dental health provider will also feel the tissues in your mouth to check for lumps or bumps. Your throat and neck will also be examined for lumps and discoloration. Your face, neck, and lips will be examined as well.

Some dentists use special tests in addition to the oral exam to screen for oral cancer. These tests include:

  • Oral cancer screening dye. Rinsing your mouth with a special blue dye before an exam. Abnormal cells in your mouth may take up the dye and appear blue.
  • Oral cancer screening light. Shining a light in your mouth during an exam. The light makes healthy tissue appear dark and makes abnormal tissue appear white.

If any lesions are discovered that signifies mouth cancer, the following may be recommended:

  • A follow-up visit in a few weeks to see if the abnormal area is still present and note whether it has grown or changed over time.
  • A biopsy procedure to remove a sample of cells for laboratory testing to determine whether cancer cells are present. Your dentist may perform the biopsy, or you may be referred to an oral surgeon who specializes in oral cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Types of Oral cancer

  • Oral squamous cell carcinoma – Squamous cells line the throat and mouth and account for 90 to 95 percent of cancerous lesions in the oral cavity. ts.
  • Oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma – This cancer is most likely to be in the back of the throat. Human papillomavirus (HPV) may be one cause of oropharyngeal cancer.
  • Salivary gland lesions –Tumors in the salivary glands are commonly located in any major salivary glands (parotid, submandibular and sublingual) and minor salivary glands (found in the roof of mouth, lip and cheek).
  • Basal cell carcinoma – A type of skin cancer that grows on skin that is excessively exposed to sun. It can affect the lips, nose, scalp or cheeks
  • Melanoma: Oral melanomas are very rare and often discovered in extremely advanced stage of the cancer.

If you discover a suspicious lump, sore or lesion in your mouth, consult with your dentist. If needed, a B examination by an oral surgeon will be the next step in determining if your findings are cancerous or not. Most oral lumps and bumps are not cancerous; however, a diagnosis by an OMS is necessary to know for sure. The goal of oral cancer screening is to identify mouth cancer early, when there is a greater chance for a cure. Everyone should make it a routine to perform self-exams monthly and have annual exams by dental health care provider.

All information provided in this post is informational ONLY and does not replace the recommendations from your dentist or dental hygienist!

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