Mouth health, mouth cancer - what are the facts?

Every day in the UK 21 people are diagnosed with this condition - and smoking is the most common cause. But I'm not talking about chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the chronic lung problem most commonly linked to smoking - or even to lung cancer.

If I asked you to think of a cancer (yes, I know you'd prefer not to), you'd probably think of breast or bowel cancer, because these are so common.

But we forget mouth cancer at our peril - cases have increased by nearly 40% in the last decade alone. That means one in 150 women and one in 75 men will be diagnosed with mouth cancer over a lifetime. If you don't want to be a statistic, read on for some top tips.

Mouth cancer gets more common with age - half those diagnosed are aged over 65 - so don't ignore sore patches under dentures. Being off your food or losing weight for no reason can also be a sign of cancer. Clearly I'm not talking about being off your food temporarily while you have a tummy but or after a hard night out - but if it persists for any length of time, get it checked out.

Mouth cancer can affect any part of your lips or mouth - and that includes your tongue and tonsils. The most common sign is an ulcer or sore patch that doesn't heal. However, you should also look out for lumps or red or white patches anywhere in your mouth (including your tongue); unusual bleeding or numbness; pain when you chew or swallow; or a feeling of something being caught in your throat.

If your doctor suspects mouth cancer, he or she will refer you to be seen by a specialist within two weeks. A biopsy can confirm the diagnosis, and if caught early, the outlook is good. Surgery is the most common treatment, but you may also be offered radiotherapy or chemotherapy.

While smoking is the single biggest risk factor, drinking too much alcohol or having teeth and gums in poor condition can also contribute. Sticking within the recommended alcohol limits (14 units a week - about seven pints of beer or one and a half bottles of wine) spread over several days can cut your risk. So can eating a healthy diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables.

The good news is that mouth cancer is yet another condition you can protect yourself against by stopping smoking. Every doctor knows how hard it is to quit, and there has never been more help available on the NHS. Working with a smoking cessation advisor really does increase the chance of quitting successfully, and so do smoking cessation aids. E-cigarettes and nicotine replacement products can help. And a recent study shows tablets like Champix®, which can reduce cravings, don't carry the mental health risks we once feared. Speak to your GP, practice nurse or pharmacist.

Your gums protect your teeth and the structures that hold them in place. Gum disease started with the build-up of plaque - a combination of small food particles, mucus and bacteria. Plaque embeds itself in the spaces between your teeth, and between your teeth and gums. It's sticky, so the acid produced by the bacteria stays in damaging contact with your teeth. Plaque can lead to inflammation (with bleeding when you brush your teeth) and possible infection - it's also a common cause of bad breath.

It may seem bizarre, but gum disease has been linked to a wide variety of serious health problems including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke. It's even been linked with dementia. As yet, while we know that people with gum disease are more likely to have other health conditions, we don't know if the gum problems actually cause them. However, some experts think that the bacteria from plaque may get released into the blood, causing inflammation and long-term damage.

So on the premise of 'better safe than sorry', looking after your gums has to be a good idea. And to look after your gums, you need to look after your teeth. Clearly that includes brushing with a fluoride toothpaste for two minutes twice a day, but don't forget to floss (I use the little interdental sticks - much easier!) and have regular dental check-ups too.

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.