Dental Emergencies

How is an Oral Cancer Screening Done?

Oral cancer is a potentially life-threatening disease that affects thousands of people worldwide. Detecting oral cancer in its early stages significantly increases the chances of successful treatment and survival. That’s why regular oral cancer screenings are crucial for everyone, especially those with risk factors such as tobacco use, heavy alcohol consumption, previous oral cancer diagnosis, or significant sun exposure. In this article, we will explore the importance of oral cancer screening, what happens during a screening, and how it can potentially save lives.

What is Oral Cancer Screening?

Oral cancer screening is a comprehensive examination performed by a dentist or doctor to detect signs of cancer or precancerous conditions in the mouth. The goal of this screening is to identify oral cancer at an early stage when it is easier to treat and has a higher chance of cure. During the screening, the healthcare professional looks for any abnormalities, such as red or white patches, sores, lumps, or rough patches in the mouth, gums, palate, soft tissue, tongue, face, neck, lips, and inside the nose.

The Benefits of Oral Cancer Screening

Early detection is key when it comes to oral cancer. Although no studies have definitively proven that oral cancer screening saves lives, detecting oral cancer early can lead to timely treatment and a better prognosis. Oral cancer screenings can help identify precancerous lesions that may progress to cancer if left untreated. By catching these abnormalities early, dentists can recommend further testing or biopsy to determine whether cancer cells are present. Timely intervention can make a significant difference in the outcome of oral cancer treatment.

Who Should Get Screened?

Medical organizations have differing opinions on whether healthy individuals without risk factors for oral cancer need routine oral cancer screening. However, if you have risk factors such as tobacco use (including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, and snuff), heavy alcohol consumption, a previous oral cancer diagnosis, or a history of significant sun exposure, you may be more likely to benefit from regular screenings. Additionally, the number of oral and throat cancers associated with the human papillomavirus (HPV) is on the rise, making it even more important to consider oral cancer screening.

What Happens During an Oral Cancer Screening?

Oral cancer screenings are typically performed during routine dental visits. The process involves two main parts: a visual examination and a physical examination. The visual examination consists of inspecting the inside of the mouth for any abnormalities, such as swelling, bumps, lumps, white patches, sores, or rough patches. A small light and mirror may be used to get a better view of the nose and mouth. The physical examination involves feeling the tissues in the mouth, head, cheeks, jaw, under the chin, and inside the oral cavity for any unusual nodules or masses.

Additional Tests for Oral Cancer Screening

In some cases, dentists may use additional tests to aid in oral cancer screening. These tests can provide further insight and help detect abnormalities that may not be apparent during a visual or physical examination alone. One such test involves rinsing the mouth with a special blue dye before the examination. Abnormal cells in the mouth may take up the dye and appear blue, making them easier to identify. Another test involves shining a light in the mouth during the examination. This light can highlight healthy tissue and make abnormal tissue appear white, aiding in the detection of potential issues.

Limitations and Risks of Oral Cancer Screening

While oral cancer screening is an important tool in detecting oral cancer, it does have certain limitations. One limitation is that an oral exam cannot definitively determine which sores are cancerous and which are not. Therefore, if an unusual sore is found during the screening, further testing, such as a biopsy, may be necessary to confirm the presence of cancer cells. Additionally, oral cancer screening may not be able to detect all cases of oral cancer, especially small cancers or precancerous lesions that may go undetected during the examination. It’s also important to note that routine oral examinations have not been proven to reduce the number of deaths caused by oral cancer.

How to Prepare for an Oral Cancer Screening

Preparing for an oral cancer screening is relatively simple. No special preparation is required, and the screening can usually be performed during a routine dental appointment. However, it’s important to communicate with your dentist about any concerns or risk factors you may have. By discussing your medical history and lifestyle choices, your dentist can determine whether an oral cancer screening is appropriate for you and tailor the examination accordingly.

The Role of Dentists in Oral Cancer Screening

Dentists play a crucial role in oral cancer screening and prevention. During routine dental visits, dentists have the opportunity to examine the mouth for any signs or symptoms of oral cancer. They can also educate patients about the importance of oral cancer screening and provide guidance on reducing risk factors, such as smoking cessation and alcohol moderation. Dentists may also use advanced technologies, such as the VELscope, to aid in the detection of precancerous cells that may not be visible to the naked eye.

Frequently Asked Questions about Oral Cancer Screening

Q: How long does an oral cancer screening take?

A: An oral cancer screening typically takes about 5 to 10 minutes. It is a quick and non-invasive procedure that can be performed during your regular dental check-up.

Q: What to expect during an oral cancer screening?

A: During an oral cancer screening, your dentist will examine your mouth, lips, tongue, throat, and other oral tissues for any signs of abnormalities or suspicious lesions. They may also ask you questions about your medical history and any symptoms you may be experiencing.

Q: Can a mouth swab detect oral cancer?

A: Yes, a mouth swab can be used to detect oral cancer. It can collect cells from the oral cavity, which can then be analyzed for the presence of cancerous or precancerous cells. However, it’s important to note that a mouth swab is just one of the many methods used for oral cancer detection and should not be solely relied upon for a definitive diagnosis.

Q: Where is the most common place for oral cancer?

A: The most common place for oral cancer is the tongue, followed by the floor of the mouth, lips, and the soft tissues lining the inside of the cheeks and lips. However, oral cancer can occur in any part of the mouth or throat.

Q: What is the three finger test for mouth cancer?

A: The three finger test is a simple self-examination technique used to detect early signs of mouth cancer. It involves running three fingers (index, middle, and ring finger) along the sides of your neck to feel for any swollen or enlarged lymph nodes. If you notice any abnormal lumps or bumps, it is important to consult a dentist or healthcare professional for further evaluation.

Q: What age do you start screening for oral cancer?

A: The American Dental Association recommends that oral cancer screenings should begin at the age of 18. However, the risk of oral cancer increases with age, so regular screenings are especially important for individuals over the age of 40.

Q: Can dentists spot oral cancer?

A: Yes, dentists are trained to spot the early signs of oral cancer. During routine dental check-ups, they carefully examine the oral tissues and look for any abnormalities, such as sores, red or white patches, or lumps. If any suspicious areas are found, they may recommend further tests or refer you to a specialist for a biopsy.

Q: What does early stages of mouth cancer look like?

A: In the early stages, mouth cancer may appear as a small, painless white or red patch, a persistent sore that doesn’t heal, or a lump or thickening in the mouth or throat. Other symptoms may include difficulty swallowing, persistent hoarseness, or unexplained weight loss. It’s important to note that these symptoms can also be caused by other conditions, so a proper diagnosis is crucial.

Q: What is the survival rate for oral cancer?

A: The survival rate for oral cancer depends on various factors, such as the stage of cancer at the time of diagnosis, the location of the tumor, and the overall health of the individual. According to the American Cancer Society, the 5-year survival rate for localized oral cancer is around 84%, while the rate drops to approximately 39% for cases that have spread to distant parts of the body.

Q: What do oral cancer bumps look like?

A: Oral cancer bumps can vary in appearance, but they are often characterized by being red or white patches, ulcers, or lumps in the mouth or throat. They may be painless or cause discomfort, and they can occur on the tongue, gums, lips, or other tissues in the oral cavity. It’s important to have any persistent or suspicious bumps checked by a healthcare professional for proper evaluation.

Q: How common is oral cancer?

A: Oral cancer is relatively common, with over 53,000 new cases diagnosed each year in the United States alone. It is the 6th most common cancer worldwide. The risk factors for oral cancer include tobacco and alcohol use, exposure to HPV (human papillomavirus), excessive sun exposure, a family history of oral cancer, and poor oral hygiene. Regular dental check-ups and early detection are key to improving the chances of successful treatment and recovery.


Oral cancer screening is a vital tool in the early detection and treatment of oral cancer. While no single oral exam or screening test has been proven to reduce the risk of dying from oral cancer, regular screenings can help in identifying potential issues at an early stage. By working closely with your dentist and discussing any risk factors you may have, you can determine whether oral cancer screening is appropriate for you. Remember, early detection can make a significant difference in the success of oral cancer treatment. So, don’t hesitate to prioritize your oral health and schedule regular dental check-ups that include oral cancer screenings.

Book an appointment at Capital Dentistry for an oral cancer screening today and take control of your oral health! Call us at +1-613-707-1833 or visit our website for more information.