Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

Mouth cancer

6-minute read

Key facts

  • Mouth cancer is an aggressive type of cancer that can affect your lips, tongue or inner mouth.
  • Risk factors include smoking, drinking alcohol, poor mouth hygiene and chewing betel nut.
  • Symptoms may include a painless lump in your mouth or a mouth ulcer (sore) that won’t heal.
  • Mouth cancer is often diagnosed at a late stage, but your chances of treatment success are greater the earlier it is detected.

What is mouth cancer?

Mouth cancer, also known as oral cancer, develops when abnormal cells grow and divide inside your mouth.

Mouth cancer usually begins in your lips, tongue or floor of your mouth, but it can also be found in the roof of your mouth, tonsils, gums, cheeks and salivary glands.

It can be quite an aggressive cancer. The cancer may not be found until it is quite advanced because you might not have any pain or symptoms. Your dentist is the person most likely to discover your mouth cancer, so it’s important to have regular dental check-ups. If you think you might have mouth cancer, you can also visit your GP.

What are the risk factors for mouth cancer?

You can develop mouth cancer at any age from young adulthood onwards. Risk factors include:

What are the types of mouth cancer?

Most mouth cancers are squamous cell carcinomas (cancer that grows from the squamous cell layer in your skin).

Rare forms of mouth cancer include salivary gland cancer (usually an adenoma — a cancer that starts in a gland), a tumour that develops in other glands of your mouth, lymphoma (which starts in the lymph glands at the base of your tongue and tonsils), and melanoma.

What are the symptoms of mouth cancer?

The symptoms of mouth cancer may include:

  • a painless lump, or a red or white patch in your mouth, lip, throat or neck
  • a mouth ulcer (sore) that won’t heal
  • problems chewing, swallowing or moving your jaw
  • changes to your speech
  • loose teeth
  • weight loss

None of these symptoms are necessarily due to mouth cancer, and may be caused by other things. But if you are experiencing any of the above, you should tell your dentist or your GP.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

How is mouth cancer diagnosed?

If your dentist thinks you might have mouth cancer, they will refer you to your GP for tests. Tests may include:

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How is mouth cancer treated?

Treatment will depend on the type of mouth cancer you have and how far it has spread. If your mouth cancer is at an early stage, you may have surgery to remove the tumour. The type of surgery you need will also depend on where your cancer is, and how large it is. The surgeon may also need to remove lymph nodes and some surrounding tissue. If you have a small cancer, you may be treated just with radiotherapy. In some cases, you may need both radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

Not all mouth cancers can be treated. If your cancer is advanced, palliative care may be offered to help relieve symptoms.

What should I do after completing treatment for mouth cancer?

After treatment, you’ll still need regular check-ups and tests by specialists. Mouth cancer can come back so it is very important that you see your doctors regularly.

After you have been treated for cancer, it is normal to feel afraid that your cancer will return. If you are struggling, it is important to seek support from your doctor, a therapist or other people who have been through cancer.

Can mouth cancer be prevented?

It is important that you stopping smoking and reducing alcohol intake to help prevent mouth cancer. Also, make sure to protect your lips from the sun. Keep your mouth clean and see your dentist regularly, even if you have dentures.

You should see your dentist for regular check-ups (at least yearly) even if you have no symptoms, and visit your dentist or GP if you’re concerned you might have mouth cancer.

Resources and support

Cancer Council Australia provides services and support to all people affected by cancer. Call 13 11 20.

Cancer Australia has more information on living with cancer.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: September 2022

Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Oral Cancer |

Oral cancer is a potentially fatal disease that can affect anyone, of any age. It is an aggressive disease with a survival rate of only 50% over 5 years.

Read more on Australian Dental Association – website

Mouth Cancer (oral cancer) - Head and Neck Cancer Australia

Mouth Cancer is a type of Head and Neck Cancer. Also known as Oral Cancer and cancer of the oral cavity including tongue, gum, and jaw cancers.

Read more on Head and Neck Cancer Australia website

Mouth cancer | Causes, Symptoms & Treatments | Cancer Council

What is mouth cancer? Find out about the symptoms, causes, treatment options and more. Get the facts from Cancer Council here

Read more on Cancer Council Australia website

Types of head and neck cancer | Cancer Australia

Cancers of the head and neck are categorised by the area of the head or neck where they begin.These areas are: oral cavity: including the lips, gums, lining of the cheeks and lips, front two-thirds of the tongue, floor of the mouth under the tongue, and roof (hard palate) of the mouth pharynx (throat): the tube that leads from behind the nose to the trachea (windpipe) and

Read more on Cancer Australia website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Queensland Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Victorian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.