How to Do an Oral Self-Examination

Roughly 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with oral cancer every year. 1 in 5 of these patients will die from the disease. This is a death rate higher than Hodgkin’s lymphoma, cervical cancer, laryngeal cancer and cancer of the testes or endocrine system.

The high mortality rate is due, in part, to the fact that most oral cancers are not diagnosed until the latter stages of the disease.

If you are at risk for developing oral cancer, it is highly recommended you do routine self-examinations at home between visits with your dentist. Early detection increases your chances for a positive prognosis.

Signs to Look For

Familiarize yourself with the potential symptoms of oral cancer.

Please note that many of these symptoms are also indicators of far less serious concerns. There is no need to worry should you discover one or more of these signs but should they persist, seek a professional opinion.

  • Ulcers
  • Red spots or white patches
  • Thin grey or white plaques
  • Lumps on the lips, tongue or neck
  • Bright red “velvety” patches
  • Sore throat and/or difficulty swallowing

Step 1: Examine Neck & Lymph Nodes

Stand in front of a mirror, tilt your head back and check your neck for swelling or abnormal masses/growth.

Bring your chin back into its normal position and feel your lymph nodes to see if they are inflamed.

Step 2: Lips & Gums

Wash your hands and feel both your upper and lower lips. Gently squeeze the lip as you move along to look for bumps or swelling.

Pull your lips away from your gums and check for red spots, ulcers or white patches.

If your gums are inflamed and bleeding at the base of your teeth, you may need to seek treatment for gum disease.

Step 3: Roof of Your Mouth & Tongue

Tilt your head back and inspect the roof of your mouth for red or white spots or unusual growths.

Using a washcloth, pull on the tip of your tongue so that you can clearly see every surface. Look for ulcers and be sure to check both left and right sides. Press down on the back of your tongue with a popsicle stick or tongue depressor to see the part of your tongue entering the throat.

Push the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth with your finger to check the underside of your tongue and the floor of your mouth. Pay special attention to this area as it is the most commonly affected by oral cancer.

Step 4: Palpate Your Cheeks

Using your thumb on the inside and forefinger on the outside, examine your cheeks for masses or irregularities.

When to Make an Appointment

Should you discover a large growth, make an appointment with your dentist or oral surgeon right away.

In the case of minor swelling or discoloration, watch daily and see a professional if the symptom persists for 7-14 days.

Upon inspection at the office, your dental care professional will advise you as to whether or not a biopsy is required.