Mouth Cancer Action Month is the UK’s biggest charity campaign for mouth cancer awareness, held in November every year.

It is supported by the Mouth Cancer Foundation and the Oral Health Foundation, who raise money for improving awareness and education around mouth cancer.

What is Mouth Cancer?

This is the general term given to the variety of malignant tumours that develop in the mouth, (oral cavity). The Mouth Cancer Foundation promotes awareness of all head and neck cancers i.e. throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx), salivary glands, nose, nasal, sinuses, lips and skin.

Mouth Cancer risk factors

We don’t know what causes most mouth cancers. However, there are several factors that are likely to increase your risk.

Up to 90% of all mouth cancers are linked to lifestyle factors.

This means that with a few small changes, you can help cut your chances of developing mouth cancer.

If you do not stop or reduce the things that might put you at greater risk, it is important that you do self-checks at home and regularly visit your dentist.

If any or most of these apply to you, it does not mean that you are certain to develop mouth cancer.

The below causes are linked to mouth cancer.


Smoking tobacco increases your risk of developing mouth cancer by up to ten times, compared with never-smokers. This includes smoking cigarettes, pipes or cigars.

Around two in every three (more than 60%) mouth cancers are linked to smoking.

There is also evidence that second-hand smoke at home or in the workplace may increase a person’s risk of mouth cancer.


Drinking alcohol to excess increases your risk of mouth cancer. Alcohol is linked to just under a third (30%) of all mouth cancers.

Smoking and drinking together trebles a person’s mouth cancer risk.

UK guidelines recommend a maximum of 14 units of alcohol a week for both men and women.


Many recent reports have linked mouth cancer to the human papillomavirus (HPV).

HPV is the major cause of cervical cancer and affects the skin that lines the moist areas of the body. HPV can be spread through oral sex, and research suggests that it could soon rival smoking and drinking as one of the main causes of mouth cancer.

Practicing safe sex and limiting the number of partners you have may help reduce your chances of contracting HPV.

There are now HPV vaccines for both girls and boys. They were developed to fight cervical cancer, but it is likely that they will also help to reduce the rates of mouth cancer. These vaccines are given at age 12 to 13 before sexual activity starts.

Chewing and smokeless tobacco

Smokeless tobacco is any tobacco product that is placed in the mouth or nose and not burned.

Chewing and smokeless tobacco is extremely harmful and can significantly increase a person’s risk of being diagnosed with mouth cancer.

The types of smokeless tobacco products most used contain a mix of ingredients including slaked lime, areca nut and spices, flavourings and sweeteners.

The terminology for smokeless tobacco varies, but the main types used in the UK include:

  • Gutka, Khaini, Pan Masala (betel quid), Shammah and Maras powder (these are sucked or chewed);
  • Zarda, Qiwam, or Mawa (chewed);
  • Lal dantmanjan, Gadakhu, Gul, Mishri, or Creamy Snuff (dental products which are used as toothpaste or rubbed on gums);
  • Nass (can be used nasally, sucked or chewed).

Smokeless tobacco is often popular with South Asian communities.


Around a third of mouth cancers are thought to be linked to an unhealthy diet and a lack of vitamins and minerals.

It is recommended that you eat a healthy, balanced diet including lots of fruit and vegetables each day.

Increasing evidence also suggests that Omega 3, found in foods such as eggs and fish, can help lower your risk. Foods high in fibre such as nuts, seeds, whole-wheat pasta and brown rice, are also said to do the same.

Sunlight and sunbeds

Too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a known cause of skin cancer. This can occur either from natural sunlight or sunbeds.

Skin cancer can develop on the lips – as this area is often exposed to UV radiation.

Cancer history

Those who have had a mouth cancer are at greater risk of developing it again.

There are also other cancers which can mean a person is more likely to get mouth cancer. These include:

  • Oesophagus cancer (of the food pipe)
  • Squamous cell skin cancer
  • Cervical cancer
  • Penile cancer
  • Anal cancer

Family history, genetics and the immune system

Although we do not know why, there is a slight increase in risk of mouth cancer if you have a close relative diagnosed with the disease.

Mouth cancer can also be more likely for those who carry certain inherited genes. Links have been found for those with genetic conditions affecting the bone marrow, skin or fingernails.

Research also shows those undergoing treatment for HIV or AIDS, and those taking medication after organ transplants are slightly more at risk of mouth cancer. This is because some of the medication in these cases can weaken the immune system.

How to spot mouth cancer

Mouth cancer is often spotted in its early stages by your dentist during a thorough mouth examination and oral screening.

Contact your dentist for an appointment to get your oral health checked.

You can also do a simple mouth cancer check at home. Please follow the steps in the picture below or watch this short video to take you through the steps.

Mouth Cancer Facts and Figures

  • 1 person every 3 HOURS is lost to Mouth Cancer.
  • 8864 people in the UK were diagnosed with Mouth Cancer last year.
  • Last year 3034 people in the UK lost their life to Mouth Cancer.
  • Worldwide Mouth Cancer affects 650,000 per year.
  • Mouth Cancer is TWICE as common in men than women, though an increasing number of women are being diagnosed with the disease.
  • 58% of mouth cancers appear on the tongue and tonsils.
  • 78% of cases occur in the Over 55 age group.
  • The ten-year survival rate is between 18% and 57%, depending on where the cancer strikes and how early it is diagnosed.
  • Incidence has risen by 49% over the past 10 years.
  • 5 year SURVIVAL rate has hardly improved in last few decades due to late detection.
  • 25% of mouth cancer cases have no associated significant risk factors.
  • More people in the UK die each year of mouth cancer than of cervical and testicular cancer combined.
  • Mouth cancer causes more deaths in the UK each year than road traffic accidents.
  • Almost nine-in-ten (88%) UK adults have now heard of mouth cancer. However, awareness on the signs, symptoms and risk factors is poor.
  • Awareness of the major signs and symptoms for mouth cancer are as low as 17%.
  • Awareness on the major risk factors of mouth cancer is as low as 9%.
  • Improving access to NHS dentistry, tackling late diagnosis, and protecting public health policies are some of the key challenges in confronting mouth cancer.
  • It is important for all patients to have good access to dental care pre and post treatment.