During your last dental check-up you may have been told you were receiving a “routine oral cancer screening.”  If you’re young, healthy, and refrain from smoking and excessive alcohol intake, you might be wondering why your dentist is concerned about this disease.

It is true that oral cancer is associated with age, male gender, and habits such as smoking and excessive alcohol intake.  However, there is a new category of risk factors emerging at an alarming rate.  And unfortunately, this category is relevant to persons of all age groups.

Human Papilloma Virus, or HPV, is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI).  It is thought that most sexually active men and women will at some point in their lives become infected with HPV.  Like the influenza (flu) virus, HPV has many strains.  While some strains are relatively harmless, several very common strains have strong links with cancers such as oral cancer and cervical cancer. 

Unfortunately, when cancer occurs in the oral cavity, it tends to occur in places that are difficult to see—for example, underneath the tongue.  Additionally, at your routine physical check-up, your physician is probably not screening for it.  Therefore, your dentist will likely look around your mouth to check for signs of pre-cancerous or cancerous tissue changes.  With frequent enough screening, such as every six months at your dental check-up, it is unlikely that oral cancer would go undetected for a significant period of time. 

The take-home message here is that when your dentist tells you they are screening for oral cancer, it should not raise alarm or panic.  It is merely a tool that your dentist is employing in response to increasing rates of oral cancer in the United States.  As with many cancers, early detection is key for good treatment outcomes. Continue to follow our blog at www.watergatedental.com.  Thank you for reading!