Do I Have Gum Disease or Oral Cancer? Prevention and Detection Guide

Are your gums swollen and red? Or perhaps you’ve noticed a suspicious bump or sore on your gums. If yes, your mind might begin to wander and wonder: “Do I have gum disease or oral cancer?” To avoid confusion and help you understand the difference between gum disease and oral cancer, here is everything you need to know about both diseases.

Signs of Gingivitis

Gingivitis is the earliest form of gum disease. Poor oral hygiene leading to plaque buildup is the main cause. Signs you may have gingivitis include:

  • Red, swollen, and sensitive gums
  • Bleeding gums, especially during brushing and flossing
  • Chronic bad breath
  • Teeth that appear longer due to gum recession
  • Presence of pockets between your teeth and gums
  • Infection in the pocket between your tooth and gum

If you suspect having gingivitis or a more advanced form of gum disease, see a dental professional right away to get the treatment you need.

Signs of Oral Cancer

Gum cancer is a form of malignant disease occurring in the head and neck area. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research estimates that around 53,000 Americans get diagnosed with oral cancer each year.

Red and/or white patches or irregular growths on the gums can be signs of gum cancer. Their scientific names are erythroleukoplakia (red and white), leukoplakia (white), and erythroplakia (red). Both erythroleukoplakia and erythroplakia can be malignant, whereas most leukoplakia patches are benign.

Addressing the Confusion

People sometimes mistake oral cancer for gum disease and vice versa, which is why it’s important to determine the actual cause of your symptoms through regular appointments with a dentist. Unlike most gum diseases, mouth cancers often progress and spread faster.

As early detection is key to a positive prognosis, you should visit a dentist if you feel or see something unusual on your gums.

The Link Between Oral Cancer and Gum Disease

Oral cancer does not begin with signs of early gum disease and there is no strong evidence insinuating a relationship between them. However, according to a 2017 study shared by Harvard Health Publishing, older women with gum disease might have a higher risk of developing melanoma, breast cancer, esophageal cancer, or lung cancer. Although the connection between gum disease and those malignant disorders is unclear, it does give you another reason to follow good oral hygiene practices and see a dentist every six months.

How to Prevent Oral Cancer

You may prevent oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers altogether with sensible self-care and healthy lifestyle choices.

  1. Avoid tobacco productssmoking

Your chance of developing head and neck cancer is greater the longer you’ve been smoking or chewing tobacco and the more frequently the substance comes into contact with your oral cavity. This is because both smoking and smokeless tobacco have always played a direct role in causing life-threatening diseases.

Chewing snuff and smokeless tobaccos can lead to the occurrence of gray-white ulcers called leukoplakia in the mouth, which, although benign in most cases, can also become malignant. In addition, smokeless tobacco contains chemicals that may damage a gene responsible for protecting against cancer.

  1. Drink alcohol in moderation (or quit)

Like tobacco, the longer you’ve been drinking alcohol and the more you consume on a daily or weekly basis can elevate your risk for developing oral cancer. This is because alcohol alters the body’s chemistry, breaking down its defenses against malignant diseases. Also, excessive alcohol drinking and smoking combined have a harmful multiplying effect.

Those who have more than 3.5 alcoholic drinks per day increase their risk of oral cancer up to three times, according to the National Institutes of Health. As such, you should limit your overall consumption or even consider quitting if you have a family history of cancer. The results of a 2007 study concluded that the chances of oral and pharyngeal cancer occurring is significantly higher among people with a family history of those cancers.

  1. Get vaccinated for HPV  vaccine

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is strongly associated with oral cancers, especially those that arise in the back of the mouth. HPV-related cancers are more common in men in their 40s or 50s. The symptoms are minimal in most causes, such as swelling in the neck that most men discover while shaving.

Fortunately, you can prevent HPV by getting vaccinated before becoming sexually active. 45,330 is the number of people who receive an HPV-associated cancer diagnosis each year. There is hope that the overall number of HPV-related cancer cases will decrease over time as more men and women seek vaccination. 

An additional reminder: because you can get HPV from a single sexual encounter, aside from getting vaccinated, always remember to practice safe sex to prevent contracting sexually transmitted diseases.

What Else You Can Do

Gum disease and oral cancer are different from each other, but the complications of both diseases can impact and threaten the quality of your life. Seeing a dental professional for routine checkups and cleanings is one of the best ways to lower your risk of gingivitis and detect oral cancer early on when it is easier to treat.

Moreover, having a good oral care routine at home is essential. Your daily routine should include brushing after each meal and flossing once a day, which reduces your likelihood of developing dental problems.

If you notice an unusual patch or bump on your gums or if your gums are swollen or tender, do not panic. It’s probably nothing serious, but if it lasts for longer than a week, you should see a dentist since early treatment — whether for gum cancer or gum disease — is the best treatment.

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