Mouth Cancer Risk Factors

Certain factors increase the chance of developing oral or tongue cancer. Most cases of tongue or oral cancer occur over age forty, with the highest incidence after sixty. Men are twice as likely as women to develop tongue cancer, and African-American men are at greater risk than Caucasians.

Smoking Cigarettes and Pipe Tobacco

Smoking is the single greatest risk factor for tongue and oral cancer. Smokers are five times more likely to develop tongue cancer as nonsmokers are. Lip cancer tumors may develop where cigarettes or pipes rest on the mouth. Eighty percent of mouth and tongue cancer cases are linked to smoking.

Smokeless Tobacco, Tobacco Snuff and Betel Quids

You don ‘t need to smoke cigarettes or a pipe to put yourself at risk. Using smokeless tobacco or tobacco snuff is also a risk factor for oral cancer. Gum and cheek tumors often develop in areas of the mouth where smokeless tobacco is chewed. While neither smokeless chewing tobacco nor tobacco snuff carries as high a risk of tongue or oral cancer as cigarettes, these forms of smokeless tobacco still increase the risk of oral tumors.

The effects of smokeless tobacco and snuff on tongue cancer rates can be seen in India, where betel quids are chewed. A betel quid is made from the betel leaf, which is wrapped around tobacco, slaked lime, nuts, and sweeteners. The widespread use of this form of smokeless tobacco contributes to India ‘s high mouth and tongue cancer rates. Fifty percent of all cancers diagnosed in India are tongue or oral tumors.

Alcohol and Oral Cancer

Heavy alcohol use increases the risk of oral or tongue cancer. Combining alcohol use with smoking cigarettes or a pipe, or using smokeless tobacco or snuff, increases the chance of developing oral cancer by as much as fifteen times normal levels.

HPV (Human Papillomavirus)

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted disease. Over forty million Americans carry HPV, which has over eighty different strains. Most strains of HPV are considered harmless. However, two strains, HPV 16 and HPV 18, increase the risk of tongue and oral cancers. HPV 16, which also increases the chances of cervical cancer, may increase the risk of oral or tongue cancer by 22 percent.

Ultraviolet Exposure

Much like skin cancer, lip cancer has been linked to ultraviolet light present in sunlight. In fact, lip cancer symptoms and treatment are similar to those for squamous cell skin cancer.

Preventing Oral and Tongue Cancer

Not using cigarettes, a pipe, or smokeless tobacco products is the best way to prevent tongue or oral cancer. Alcohol should only be used in moderation. A balanced diet high in fruit, vegetables, and fiber is also recommended. Follow the link for more information on the effect of diet on health.

Tongue and Oral Cancer Screening

People at high risk of oral or tongue cancer should be screened for the disease once a year. High-risk individuals are generally those who smoke, use smokeless tobacco, or snuff. Heavy drinkers should also consider being screened for tongue cancer on a regular basis.


American Cancer Society. (nd). How is oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer staged? Retrieved September 12, 2003, from y_and_oropharyngeal_cancer_staged_60.asp?sitearea=cri.

Oral Cancer Foundation. (nd). Oral cancer facts. Retrieved September 9, 2003, from

Schneider, A., Szanto, P. Pathology, 2nd Edition. Lippincott Williams