woman stickimg out her tongue to check for mouth cancer in a mirror

How to check yourself for mouth cancer

11th November 2022
Did you know that checking your own mouth for mouth cancer every month could save your life?
A pretty strong claim for something that takes less than a minute to do.
Read on to find out how easy this quick check is and why it’s one of the most important things you should add to your monthly to-do list.

What is mouth cancer?

Mouth cancer, also known as oral cancer, is any cancer that presents in the mouth. It can affect the lips, gums, tongue or throat. The tongue is the commonest place, with a third of all mouth cancers found here.

Why should I check my own mouth for mouth cancer?

Finding mouth cancer early can increase your chance of survival from 50% to 90%. This means that when we find mouth cancer early, 9 out of 10 people survive. When we find it late, only 5 out of 10 people survive. An early mouth cancer is one which has just started to grow.
5 out of 10 people survive a late diagnosis of mouth cancer infographic
9 out of 10 people survive an early diagnosis of mouth cancer infographic
So checking your mouth regularly is just as important as checking your breasts or your testicles.
Most people only see their dentist every 6 months, and indeed in the current climate it may be even longer. By checking your mouth at home you might pick up something between visits to your dentist.
That means checking your mouth at home is one of the most important ways you can pick up mouth cancer early

What should a healthy mouth look like?

Before we talk about what mouth cancer looks like, lets have a look at what a healthy mouth should look like. The surfaces in your mouth should look pink and healthy like this:

Healthy mouth tissues
Healthy tongue

All images above courtesy of Professor M A O Lewis

What should I look for in my mouth?

If you’re going to check your mouth, you need to know what to look for.
The Oral Health Foundation advise you should look out for these changes:

Check for changes in your mouth

  • Any red or white patches, unusual lumps, swellings or ulcers that don’t heal in 3 weeks.
  • Numbness, difficulty swallowing, chewing or moving your jaw or tongue.
  • Sore throat or hoarseness for more than 6 weeks or feeling like something is caught in your throat.
  • Unexplained loosening of your teeth.

How to do a mouth cancer self check

A self check will take less than a minute.
This video shows you exactly how to do it.

Or follow these 7 simple steps from Mouth Cancer Action that we’re currently giving out to our patients.



7 simple steps to check yourself for mouth cancer

What does mouth cancer look like?

Have you ever thought about what mouth cancer might look like? I’m sure we all have different ideas.

Mouth cancer has many different appearances and as I’ve said can be found in different places in your mouth.

The pictures below show examples of some (not all) of the different appearances of mouth cancer and some (not all) of the places it can be found in your mouth.

Is this what you thought mouth cancer would look like?

The moral of the story is that if you see something in your mouth that you’re not sure about, get it checked out.


Squamous cell carcinoma (mouth cancer) under tongue
Squamous cell carcinoma (mouth cancer) side of tongue
Squamous cell carcinoma (mouth cancer) floor of mouth<br />

Mouth cancer on undersurface of tongue


Mouth cancer on side of tongue


Mouth cancer on floor of mouth underneath tongue

Squamous cell carcinoma (mouth cancer) roof of mouth
Squamous cell carcinoma (mouth cancer) on gum<br />
(squamous cell carcinoma (Mouth cancer) on lip

Mouth cancer on roof of mouth

Mouth cancer on gum

Mouth cancer on lip

All images above courtesy of Professor M A O Lewis

What should I do if I find something?

If you find something in your mouth that you are worried about, call your dentist and ask for an appointment. Your dentist will be either be able to reassure you or refer you on if she wants to have it further checked.
Do not be afraid of wasting your dentist’s time – checking your mouth is what we are here for.

Ask Your Dentist How to Do a Mouth Check If You’re Not Sure.

If you’re still not sure how to check for mouth cancer at home, ask your dentist to show you the next time you’re in.
Dentist Keith Preston talking to a patient

What causes mouth cancer


Up to 90% of mouth cancers develop because of the way we live our lives.

The development of mouth cancer is linked to:

· Smoking

Smokers are 10x more likely to develop mouth cancer
Two in every three mouth cancers are associated with smoking
Scarily, almost half of smokers don’t know that smoking causes mouth cancer
  • Alcohol

Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol is linked to mouth cancer.
Just under one third of mouth cancers are associated with alcohol.
If you are a smoker and also drink excessively, you increase your risk of mouth cancer by three times.
More than 65% of those who drink more than 14 units/week don’t know that this increases their risk of mouth cancer

· Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)

HPV is a virus that infects the skin lining the inside of body (the moist areas)
During oral sex, HPV can be transmitted into the mouth. There are some HP viruses that can cause mouth cancer.
HPV is thought to be the cause of the increasing number of cases of mouth cancer being seen in younger people.
HPV is linked to three quarters of oropharyngeal (mid-throat) cancers
  • Smokeless tobacco
This is tobacco which is chewed not burned like cigarettes.
It is linked to mouth cancer.

· Diet

30% of mouth cancers are linked to poor diet


· UV light

Exposure to sunlight or sunbeds can increase the risk of mouth cancer, in particular those found on the lips.
As well as these preventable risk factors, mouth cancer risk is also associated with:
  • having had certain cancers before
  • your family history
  • genetics
  • age
  • sex
  • the state of your immune system
Mouth cancer risk factors
Government guidelines on alcohol
These great posters are available to download from the Oral Health Foundation. You could put them up in your staffroom or workplace to help spread the word about mouth cancer.

How to reduce your risk of getting mouth cancer

The good news is that up to 90% of mouth cancers are related to the way we live our lives. This means you can reduce your risk of mouth cancer by making changes to your lifestyle:
  • Stop smoking 

If you think you’d like to give up smoking but aren’t sure where to start, you can contact Quit Your Way.
This is a free NHS service

· Don’t smoke around children or other family members


· Reduce your alcohol intake to 14 units or less a week

Check out the alcohol guidelines for men and women.


· Practice safe sex


· Reduce your number of sexual partners


· Have your children (girls and boys) vaccinated against HPV

Find out more about the HPV vaccine

· Don’t chew tobacco


· Eat a healthy, balanced diet with lots of fruit and veg.

Foods high in Omega 3 and fibre are thought to help reduce your risk


· Use SPF 30+

including on your lips when exposed to the sun.


· Don’t use sunbeds

Mouth cancer is on the rise

Although most mouth cancers are linked to our lifestyle, mouth cancer is still on the rise. The number of cases have increased by 34% since 2012 and 103% since 2002, according to this very recent study. There were 8846 people diagnosed with mouth cancer last year.
The most concerning statistic, however, is that deaths are on the rise, and have increased by 46% in the last 10 years.

Struggling to get the message across about mouth cancer

We seem to be struggling to get the message about mouth cancer across. The same study asked people about their knowledge of mouth cancer. Although the majority of adults know what it is, 8 out of 10 people in the UK don’t remember ever seeing a public health message about mouth cancer.
Yet two thirds of people want to know more about it.
At Coatbridge Family Dental Care, we’re working hard to make that happen.

We have to talk about mouth cancer


When Keith and I first graduated just over 20 years ago, an oral cancer screening was already a really important part of your dental health check. But I can always remember being told by the older dentists I was working with, not to mention the ‘C’ word because it scared patients. They advised me to say that I was just checking for any lumps and bumps.


The downside of doing this meant that for a long time patients didn’t know they were having a really important screening done. As dentists, we missed the chance to talk to you all about mouth cancer. The risks, things you could do to prevent it and the early warning signs you might see in your mouths. A huge missed opportunity to raise awareness.


Over the last 10-15 years, attitudes have changed towards this. For many years now, at Coatbridge Family Dental Care, we have been telling our patients every time we do a mouth cancer screening. I’m sure that other dentists are doing the same.


Doing this allows us to reassure you when we don’t find anything of concern and allows us to talk about it more. It raises awareness and gets people talking about mouth cancer instead of it being the taboo subject it used to be.


Self-Checking for mouth cancer is the newest development


But in all honesty, it’s only in the last few of years that I’ve realised that patients should check their own mouths for mouth cancer. We have to get that message out there.

Organisations like the Oral Health Foundation, the Mouth Cancer Foundation and the Head and Neck Cancer Foundation all recommend self-checking now and are trying really hard to get the word out there.

We can all play a part in helping. This blog is part of doing that. Please share it widely if you can. You can also read one of our other mouth cancer blogs, 10 Facts Your Dentist Wishes You Knew About Mouth Cancer

And all of the organisations above have fantastic resources that can be shared with friends, family or in your workplace.

The impact of mouth cancer

Mouth cancer can seriously impact your life, particularly if it is picked up late. In these podcasts below, mouth cancer patients share their experiences.

How to check yourself for mouth cancer – a summary.

Mouth cancer is on the rise. In the current climate, it’s more important than ever that we all take responsibility for our own health.
Taking less than a minute every month to check your own mouth will ensure that any mouth cancer is picked up early. This increases your chance of survival significantly.
If you find anything in your mouth that concerns you, make an appointment with your dentist to check it out. You can arrange an appointment with our team at Coatbridge Family Dental Care on 01236 421103.
And don’t forget to visit your dentist as often as they recommend.
It’s important to remember that 90% of mouth cancers are related to the way we live our lives, so we can all choose to reduce our risk.
If you’ve found this article useful, please share it with your family and friends to help get the message out there.
If you or someone you know is affected by mouth cancer you can call the Mouth Cancer Foundation Patient and Carer advice line on 01924 950950
With many thanks to Professor M A O Lewis for the clinical photos.


(Please note prices and information are correct at time of publishing and may be subject to change. Please contact us on 01236 421103 or info@coatbridgedentist.com for the most up-to-date pricing and information)