Causes and Diagnoses

Causes and Diagnoses of Oral Cancer

The exact cause of oral cancer is unknown, but certain factors can increase your risk of developing this type of cancer. Common risk factors include:

  • Tobacco use
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Ill-fitting dentures
  • Nutritional deficiency

Oral cancer is more common in men and among older age groups. However, men and women of any age group can be affected.

Lichen planus, a disease of the mucus lining, can also predispose an individual to the development of oral cancer. Long-term use of immunosuppressive medications is also a risk factor.

Cancer of the lip is most commonly caused by prolonged exposure to the sun.


A clinical evaluation by a head and neck surgeon is required to accurately assess the stage of oral cancer.

A biopsy is necessary to confirm the tissue diagnosis. Some tissue can be obtained from the ulcer or growth. This procedure can be performed in the office if the area is easily accessible. If not, a procedure under general anesthesia may be necessary.

Another type of biopsy is a fine needle aspiration, which can be performed by inserting a needle into a lymph node in the neck to obtain cells. This is performed using an ultrasound machine to ensure the needle can be directed into the correct spot with minimum discomfort.

Imaging studies, such as a CT scan or PET scan, may be ordered to fully determine the anatomic extent of cancer at the primary site, and lymph nodes as well as to rule out any spread beyond the head and neck region into the lungs or bones.


A number of tests and procedures may be used to detect, diagnose and stage oral cancer, including:

  • Barium Swallow
  • Biopsy
  • Bone Scan
  • Endoscopy
  • Exfoliative Cytology
  • Physical Exam

Related Resources

Useful Links
Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer Treatment