Oral Cancer Screening: What You Need to Know

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An oral cancer screening is a thorough, physical examination that looks into the condition of the patient’s oral cavity and connecting tissues. This type of examination is done to detect early signs of mouth cancer, a condition that’s characterized by abnormal growth or sores in the mouth. In this article, we’ll be discussing the entire screening procedure and allow you to adjust your expectations prior to the examination. It is imperative to seek the advice of your local expert dentist in Joondalup if you have any questions.


Signs and symptoms of oral cancer

Before we get started, let’s take a look at the warning signs of oral cancer. Early detection of oral cancer is crucial to prevent it from developing into a more serious stage. Make sure to visit your dentist if these symptoms persist for more than two weeks:

  • Lumps, swelling, and sores anywhere in the mouth or throat.
  • White or red lesions appearing on the lips.
  • Throat feels like a lump or object is stuck inside of it.
  • Gum swelling that makes it difficult (or painful) to wear dentures.
  • Tenderness, numbness, or pain anywhere in the mouth.
  • Throbbing pain in one side of the ear (without loss of hearing)
  • Difficulty swallowing, chewing, and/or moving the tongue and jaw.
  • Persistent hoarseness or sore throat.
  •  Loose teeth without apparent signs of dental problems.

It is still unclear on what exactly causes oral cancer, but there are a number of risk factors that doctors believe contribute to the condition. Perhaps the most notable one is the use of tobacco. The Mouth Cancer Foundation, a charity that’s dedicated to providing relief and protection from mouth cancer, reports that almost 90% of oral cancer patients use tobacco.

Other risk factors include excessive alcohol consumption, a weakened immune system, and even human papillomavirus (HPV), which is a sexually transmitted disease.


How oral screening is done

During an oral cancer screening, the dentist will conduct a visual and a physical exam using specialised tools to identify any anomalies. Here’s how oral screening is done:

  1. Visual exam

The dentist inspects the patient’s neck, face, lips, throat, nasal cavity, and oral cavity. Any dental appliances are removed prior to inspecting these areas. The dentist checks for asymmetries, patches, swellings, and bumps which are indicators of oral cancer. A light and a mirror is used to inspect the nasal and oral cavity and a tongue depressor is used to hold down the patient’s tongue.

The patient may be asked to open their mouth multiple times to expose areas of the throat. From there, the dentist checks the patient’s inner cheeks, gums, tonsils, and the roof of the mouth for lumps and sores.

  1. Physical exam

After a visual exam, the dentist proceeds to conduct a physical exam. At this point, the dentist touches the patient’s head, cheeks, under the chin, and oral cavity to detect any unusual bumps or masses. The patient may be asked to move their tongue and open their mouth multiple times as well. If there are any mobility issues in normally mobile tissue, it could be an indicator of oral mouth cancer.

Oral cancer symptoms are painless, especially during its early stages, but pain and discomfort are telltale signs that the condition has progressed even further. The dentist may also request the patient to swallow while examining the oral cavity. If there’s a feeling of blockage or difficulty swallowing, it can also point towards oral cancer.


Screening devices for oral cancer

Aside from traditional dentistry equipment such as mouth mirrors, chair-mounted lights, and tongue depressors, the dentist may use specialised tools during an oral cancer screening. These screening devices are:

  • OralCDx – a special brush designed to detect abnormal cell growth in the patient’s mouth.
  • VELscope – a device that emits a visible blue light to identify suspicious oral tissues.
  • Orascoptic DK – a mouth rinse that’s moderately acidic which helps with the visual inspection of oral tissues.
  • Nasopharyngolaryngoscope – despite its complex name, a nasopharyngolaryngoscope is a flexible fiber optic camera that doctors and dentists use to thoroughly inspect hard-to-reach areas like the back of the mouth, throat, and larynx and pharynx for any abnormalities.


What happens after an oral cancer screening

An oral cancer screening is a precautionary measure. If the dentist concludes that everything is normal, the patient may still be asked to return for further testing and evaluation, especially if they’re heavy smokers and drinkers. It is common for a dentist to refer the patient for other tests like a biopsy test or blood test for further evidence.

Keep in mind that the test results are not immediately a cancer diagnosis. Oral cancer screening is more than just a medical exam, but also an opportunity for the patient to learn more about the condition and how to minimise the risks associated with it. If you are experiencing any oral cancer symptoms and you’re in doubt, make sure to visit the dentist immediately to undergo oral cancer screening.


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