3 risk factors for oral cancer

The ill effects of smoking are widely documented. Perhaps no such side effect is more widely known than the link between smoking and cancer, particularly lung cancer. And while the Lung Cancer Foundation of America notes that smoking is thought to be responsible for 80 percent of all lung cancer diagnoses, smoking also has been linked to oral cancer.

Oral cancer is not as prevalent as lung cancer. However, the Oral Cancer Foundation estimates that, in 2020, tens of thousands of people will be diagnosed with oral cancer in the United States. Recognizing the risk factors of oral cancer can help people reduce their chance of receiving such a diagnosis.

1. Tobacco
The OCF notes that one study from researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found that more than eight out of 10 oral cancer patients were smokers. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, all forms of tobacco, including cigarettes, cigars and smokeless tobacco, such as chewing tobacco and snuff, increase a person’s risk for oral cancer. The CCS even notes that exposure to secondhand smoke may increase a person’s risk for oral cancer.

2. Alcohol
Alcohol abuse is the second largest risk factor for the development of oral cancer. The OCF notes people who smoke and also abuse alcohol are at an especially high risk of developing oral cancer. The OCF theorizes that this link may be a result of what alcohol consumption does to the mouth and how that makes it easier for tobacco carcinogens to attack. Alcohol has a dehydrating effect on the cell walls within the mouth, and that may make it easier for tobacco carcinogens to permeate tissues within the mouth.

Heavy alcohol consumption also has been linked with nutritional deficiencies, including lower antioxidant levels. Diets rich in antioxidants boost the immune system and make the body more capable of fighting cancer cells.

3. HPV
The human papilloma virus, or HPV, infects the epithelial cells of skin and mucosa. Moist epithelial surfaces are found in the interior of the mouth, throat, tongue, and tonsils, among other areas. The HPV virus is transmitted when these areas come into contact with a virus, which is then transferred through epithelial cells. The HPV virus can be transferred through both conventional and oral sexual contact, though it’s important to note that many HPV infections go unnoticed and are cleared without consequence. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that up to 80 percent of Americans will have an HPV infection in their lifetimes without experiencing any adverse effects. However, one strain of the virus, known as HPV16, is strongly associated with oropharyngeal cancer.

Oral cancer poses a threat. But people can greatly reduce their risk for oral cancer by making healthy lifestyle choices. More information is available at www.oralcancerfoundation.org.

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