How do Dentists Test for Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer is a serious, but often forgotten, disease that claims the lives of approximately 12,000 people in the U.S. annually. Maintaining good overall oral health by brushing and flossing daily, and seeing your dentist regularly, but you can go a step further by asking for an oral cancer screening at your next check up. Getting targeted screening for oral cancer with a device like a VelScope helps catch this illness during the earliest stages when treatment is most successful. Find out what you need to know about oral cancer and how dentists test for it.  

What Does Your Dentist Look For?

Your dentist will complete a simple visual oral cancer screening every time you come in for a cleaning. They’ll look at your inner lips, cheeks, and gums to see if there are any abnormalities or changes since your last visit. This is often where the first sign of trouble is detected. However, patients with specific cancer risk factors may need more in-depth screening on a regular basis. Having a discussion with your dentist will help you determine which level of screening you need. The dentist is looking for mouth cancer symptoms like:

  • White patches on the inner tissue of the mouth, also known as leukoplakia
  • Areas that are irritated or reddened for no particular reason
  • Spots that are swollen, oozing, or have changed color.

However, there may be no specific symptoms to warn you that oral cancer is developing. It's important to talk to your dentist about your specific risk factors like a family history or oral cancer or your ongoing smoking habit. This will help them determine if you need more advanced screening on a regular basis, such as a scan with the VelScope.

In-Depth Screening When Needed

If your dentist thinks something looks suspicious, they have a number of tools at their disposal to help you. They may start first with the VelScope, a special imaging camera that examines the mucous membranes of the mouth. This camera can detect how tissue reacts to a fluorescent light, highlighting tissue that may be cancerous. The dentist then follows up with a biopsy. Removing a tiny bit of suspected tissue allows for testing that accurately determines if you’re experiencing cancer or just a less serious problem. If there’s a chance that the affected tissue is in your throat instead, then the dentist can use a scope to examine your upper larynx and esophagus. You may have to go through a few biopsies over your lifespan to rule out cancer, but it’s better than missing the early stages of the problem.

What to Do After a Positive Test

If you’re at the early stages of testing, you’ll have recommendations from your dentist for further testing like biopsies. Don’t skip these tests that can definitively tell you if you’re dealing with cancer or not. Waiting until the problem spreads leads to cancer that reaches the lymph nodes and metastasizes throughout the rest of the body. Getting prompt treatment for any questionable tissue in the mouth is the best way to address the cancer risk head on. The first oral cancer test isn't always accurate, but the biopsy will give you a final answer. Don't panic. You have many options for treatment and your dentist can refer you to an oncologist that specializes in this kind of cancer. Following your treatment plan and staying on top of continuing risk factors will give you a good chance of complete recovery and remission.

Reducing Oral Cancer Risk Factors

Taking good care of your mouth and health in general is the best way to reduce your chances of developing oral cancer. Some steps you can take:  

  • Quit tobacco use. Even smoke-free products like snuff or chewing tobacco can actually increase your oral cancer risk rather than reduce it.
  • Protect yourself from UV exposure. This means avoiding tanning beds and using a high SPF sunscreen when out in the sun for even short amounts of time. It’s been proven that exposure to UV rays on any part of your body increases your oral cancer risk directly.
  • Eat a healthy diet and avoid alcohol. This will help keep your body and immune system healthy and in good working order should toxins become exposed, presenting a cancer risk.
  • Get regular dental cleanings and exams. Early detection is key to treating oral cancer early and successfully. If you notice a change in the texture or color of your lips, cheeks, or gums, see your dentist as soon as possible


Protect your health for life with routine screenings for cancer and more from your dentist. Schedule your mouth cancer screening with us today to take charge of your health. We're happy to help here at Las Cruces Dental Solutions. We'll support you throughout the process and explain all of your options if we suspect you may need further treatment.

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