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Oral cancer causes and risk factors

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on June 28, 2022.

What causes oral cancer?

Patients may never know what caused their specific case of oral cancer. But some factors may increase the likelihood of developing oral cancer. The risk of oral cancer increases with age; however, people younger than age 55 may develop the disease, as well. Men are also twice as likely as women to develop oral cancer.

Oral cancer risk factors

General

Gender: Oral cancer is twice as common in men as in women. This difference may be related to the use of alcohol and tobacco, which is a major oral cancer risk factor seen more commonly in men than in women.

Age: The average age at diagnosis for oral cancer is 62, and two-thirds of individuals with this disease are over age 55, although it may occur in younger people, as well.

Ultraviolet light: Cancers of the lip are more common among people who work outdoors and visit tanning beds, and among those with prolonged exposure to sunlight.

Poor nutrition: Studies have found a link between diets low in fruits and vegetables and an increased oral cancer risk.

Genetics

Genetic syndromes: Some inherited genetic mutations, which cause different syndromes in the body, carry a high risk of oral cancer. These include:

  • Fanconi anemia is a blood condition caused by inherited abnormalities in several genes. Patients may experience symptoms at an early age and may develop anemia or aplastic anemia. The risk of oral cancer among people with Fanconi anemia is up to 500 times higher than the general population.
  • Dyskeratosis congenita is a genetically linked syndrome that may also cause aplastic anemia, and carries a high risk of oral cancer, beginning at an early age.

Lifestyle

Tobacco use: About 80 percent of patients with oral cancers use tobacco in the form of cigarettes, chewing tobacco or snuff. The risk of developing oral cancer depends on the duration and frequency of tobacco use. Smoking may lead to cancer in the mouth or throat, and oral tobacco products are associated with cancer in the cheeks, gums, and inner surface of the lips.

Alcohol: About 70 percent of people diagnosed with oral cancer are heavy drinkers. This risk is higher for people who use both alcohol and tobacco. For people who smoke and drink heavily, the risk of oral cancer may be as high as 100 percent more than the risk for people who do not smoke or drink.

Betel quid: Many people in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world chew betel quid, a leaf from the betel plant wrapped around areca nut and lime. Chewing gutka, a combination of betel quid and tobacco, is also common. Both of these substances are associated with an increased oral cancer risk.

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