Know the dangers and reduce your risk: charity reveals leading causes of mouth cancer


  Posted by: Dental Design      26th November 2020

The Oral Health Foundation is urging Brits to recognise and act on things that increase their chances of developing mouth cancer, as new research reveals awareness of the most common risk factors is worryingly low.

The call to action comes as part of November’s Mouth Cancer Action Month and coincides with a nationwide poll into how much UK adults know about a disease which has increased by more than 58% in the last decade.

The charity is particularly concerned by the report’s finding into smokers and those who drink over the government’s 14 units of alcohol per week – two of the most high-risk mouth cancer groups.

Less than half of excessive drinkers (46%) know alcohol is a risk factor for mouth cancer while just over half (54%) of smokers know smoking is a risk factor for mouth cancer.

One of the other leading causes of mouth cancer, the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is transmitted through oral sex, was known to only 16% of the population.

Here are the main causes of mouth cancer and what you can do to help reduce your risk.


Around two-in-three mouth cancers are directly caused by smoking.  The risk of being diagnosed with mouth cancer for a smoker is almost double (91%) that of somebody who has never smoked.  Cigars, pipes and environment tobacco smoke are also commonly linked to the disease.

Chief Executive of the Oral Health Foundation, Dr Nigel Carter OBE, says: “Smoking has long been associated with an increased risk of developing mouth cancer and has historically been one of the disease’s leading risk factors.

“The good news is that far less people are smoking today, which will certain have a positive effect on the number of cases in the future.  People who quit smoking reduce their risk with each year that passes, until their chances of being diagnosed with the disease is no greater than that of somebody who has never smoked.  Lowering your mouth cancer risk is just one of the many health benefits linked with quitting smoking.”


Drinking alcohol to excess is responsible for around a third of all mouth cancers. Those who drink between 1.5 and 6 units of alcohol a day could be increasing the risk of mouth cancer by 81%.  Mouth cancer is 2.5 times higher in regular drinkers than non-and occasional drinkers, and for those who heavily drink alcohol and also smoke, the risk increases by 30 times.

Dr Catherine Rutland, Clinical Director at Denplan, part of Simplyhealth, adds: “Certain lifestyle habits unfortunately do increase the risk of mouth cancer and this year sadly these habits for some people are likely to have increased during lockdown. Most lesions, in the region of 75% are linked to the use of tobacco or alcohol.

“As a general rule, the recommended government advice is you should try to reduce your alcohol intake to a maximum of 14 units per week applicable for men and women (equivalent to 2-3 units per day).  Avoid using tobacco in any form and try to eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables per day as the antioxidants in these also help protect against many other cancers.”

The human papillomavirus (HPV)

The human papillomavirus (HPV) type-16 and 18 are linked to around three-in-four (73%) throat cancers and more than one-in-ten (12%) mouth cancers.  The risk of HPV mouth cancer is higher in those with more sexual partners, people who started having sex at a younger age, and men who have ever had sexual contact with men.

Dr Nigel Carter OBE adds: “Over recent years, many experts have pointed to HPV as the cause of the sustained rise in mouth cancer cases.  Because it is sexually transmitted, most people have the HPV virus, but for many it is entirely symptomless.  Other than having a vaccination, it is difficult to protect yourself from HPV cancers and diseases, so the best advice is just to understand your level of risk and be aware of any sudden chances to the mouth, head or neck.”

Chewing and smokeless tobacco

Smokeless tobacco, including chewing tobacco, such as betel quid (gutkha) or paan is known to increase mouth cancer risk by up to four-and-a-half times.  In the UK, it is often popular in South Asian communities and worryingly, more than one-in-five (23%) smokeless and chewing tobacco users are unaware their habits put them at risk.

Dr Rutland says: “It’s a common misconception that smokeless or chewing tobacco poses less of a mouth cancer risk.  That’s not true and the risk may be higher in females and for users of chewing types of smokeless tobacco.”


A diet low in fruit and vegetables may increase your risk of mouth cancer.  This could be due to a lack of vitamins and minerals, which is provided under a balanced diet. More than three-in-four (76%) people are unaware that diet might be a contributing factor to mouth cancer.

Dr Nigel Carter OBE, says: “A balanced diet containing fruit and vegetables is a well-known indicator for good nutrition and to maintain your physical health and overall wellbeing. We understand that diet also plays a role in the development of mouth cancer, so making sure you stick to your five-a-day is incredibly important.” 

Figures collected by the Oral Health Foundation show that 8,722 people in the UK were diagnosed with the disease last year, increasing by 97% since 2000.

Mouth cancer cases in the UK have soared for the 11th year in a row and have more than doubled within the last generation, while the disease claimed the lives of 2,702 Brits last year.

For more information about mouth cancer, including how to do a self-check for the disease, visit

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