When it comes to life-threatening diseases like oral cancer, one of the questions everyone wants to know is: Is it preventable? The short answer is ‘yes.’ Oral cancer has been deemed a “highly preventable” type of cancer by the medical community. You might be surprised to know that only a small percentage of cancers― 5%― are hereditary. Oral cancer is not one of them. Oral cancer can be prevented in two major ways: lifestyle changes and early detection and treatment.
1) Lifestyle Changes
Because oral cancer is a lifestyle disease, it can be prevented a lot more easily than it can be acquired. Preventing oral cancer is largely a matter of knowing the risk factors and avoiding them. Tobacco use, excessive alcohol use, excessive sun exposure, and poor oral hygiene are the major risk factors for oral cancer.
People with certain conditions like lichen planus, human paillomavirus (HPV), and graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) are also at risk for oral cancer. To a lesser extent, diet and nutrition also plays a role in increasing or decreasing a person’s risk of developing oral cancer. Specifically, diets low in beta-carotene (fruits and vegetables), vitamin C, and vitamin E have been found to be associated with an increased risk of oral cancer.
The fact that 3 in 4 people diagnosed with oral cancer have at least one of the above risk factors strongly suggests that oral cancer can be prevented by eliminating or decreasing the behaviors and conditions that increase a person’s chance of getting the disease.
2) Early detection and treatment
Along with lifestyle changes, regular oral cancer screenings and dental check-ups play a major role in preventing oral cancer. Dentists can detect pre-cancerous conditions in the mouth (such as lesions and discolorations of the mucous membranes). An early oral cancer diagnosis drastically improves treatment outcomes and mortality rates, and greatly increases the chances of nipping the disease in the bud.
Most people understand the increased risk of lung disease, cancer, and heart disease associated with smoking, but what is less widely known is that smoking poses a serious risk to the smoker’s oral health.
Smoking is one of the primary factors for developing periodontal disease (gum disease). This disease can be as mild as an inflammation of the gums, but if left untreated it will progress to an infection of the gums, jawbone, and other tissue. Tooth loss will occur if the disease is not treated an in addition to contributing to the development of gum disease, smoking reduces the effectiveness of the treatment.
Gum disease is caused by the bacteria in the mouth that forms plaque that hardens on the teeth and can only be removed by a cleaning by a dentist or dental hygienist. Plaque that remains below the gum line attacks the gum tissue and causes it to pull away from the teeth.
This allows more bacteria to enter which causes the gums to become inflamed and eventually develop an infection. The exact cause is not clear, but smoking seems to impair the ability of gum tissue to fight off the bacteria and leaves smokers more likely to develop gum disease.
In addition to gum disease, smoking is known to increase the risk of oral cancer and throat cancer. Pipe smoking and cigar smoking pose a similar risk of oral cancer, throat cancer, and gum disease. Smokeless tobacco is just as bad or worse for your oral health than smoking. Smokeless tobacco use not only increases the risk of oral cancers and gum disease, but also contributes to tooth decay.
Regular dental check-ups and cleanings can help maintain your oral health. Your dentist will conduct an oral cancer screening during your annual or semi-annual check up and a professional cleaning can help prevent the development of gingivitis and gum disease.
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