What are some of the most common causes of oral cancer?

Some of the top causes of oral cancer and known risk factors include:

  • The use of all forms of tobacco (the most common of which are smokeless tobacco and cigarettes)
  • Gutka
  • Excessive intake of alcohol
  • Human Papilloma Virus
  • Age
  • Sun Exposure (UV Light)
  • Poor diet

The more known risk factors/causes of oral cancer you partake in or exhibit, the higher your chance of developing cancer in the oral cavity. Many of these risk factors are preventable and it is up to you to decide if partaking or subjecting yourself to many of these things are worth the risk of cancer. Making wise decisions today can positively affect your life in the years to follow. Below is more specific information on each of the causes of oral cancer.

Tobacco Use– Tobacco products are the most common cause of oral cancer and also the most preventable of the known causes of oral cancer. Tobacco is not only known to cause cancer in the mouth and throat but in other areas as well including the lungs, kidneys, bladder, voice box and esophagus. Smoking cigarettes, cigars, pipes and any form of smokeless tobacco are all known causes of oral cancer.

Gutka– While gutka is not that common in the United States it is one of the top causes of oral cancer in India, where it is predominately produced, and other areas of Asia. Gutka is a kind of chewing tobacco that is a combination of an areca nut (also called a betel nut), various spices, sweeteners and tobacco. It usually comes in small individual packets that are very inexpensive and is used similar to chewing tobacco. It is often not labeled as containing tobacco, but instead resembles children’s candy or is sold as breath fresheners.

Click HERE for an interesting article from the BBC on Gutka in India.

Alcohol– Heavy alcohol use is also one of the top causes of oral cancer. 7 out of 10 oral cancer patients are heavy drinkers. The more you drink the higher your risk for developing oral cancer. It is recommended that men have no more than two drinks per day and women no more than one drink a day to decrease their risk of developing oral cancer. Studies have shown that an individual who uses tobacco and drinks is over one hundred times more likely to develop oral cancer than someone who does not.

Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)– While over the past few years the overall number of oral cancer diagnoses have decreased, the number of diagnoses as a result of HPV have increased. It is believed that this increase is due to changes is sexual practices of the younger generation, especially an increase in oral sex. HPV is known to usually cause oral cancer in areas of the throat, tongue and tonsils. Individuals diagnosed with HPV tend to be much younger than the average person at risk for oral cancer. While most people have no symptoms as a result of HPV and their chance for developing cancer is relatively low, it is still considered a preventable risk for developing oral cancer.

Want more information on HPV as a cause of oral cancer?

Here is an article from the National Cancer Institute on HPV and Cancer.
Watch this video from the Oral Cancer Foundation on HPV as a cause of oral cancer.

Sun Exposure (UV Light)– Individuals who spend significant time in the sun (which is our main source of UV light) and do not wear appropriate lip balm with sunscreen or a hat to shade the face are also at risk for developing oral cancer on their lips. This is one of the most preventable causes of oral cancer. You should protect your lips from overexposure to the sun like you would the rest of the skin on your body by using lip balm or lotion with sunscreen.

Diet– Studies have show that diets low in fruits and vegetables are additional causes of oral cancer

Age and Gender– Most types of oral cancer are shown to develop over a long period of time and are most often found in men over the age of 55. As the number of cases caused by HPV has continued to increase the number of cases seen in younger people has also begun to increase, but individuals over 55 are still considered the highest risk.

What if I want more information on the causes of oral cancer?

We recommend visiting our Oral Cancer Resources page. This page has tons of links to other sites dedicated to oral cancer research.

Also the links below will connect you to more information on the symptoms, prevention and treatment of oral cancer.


Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer. American Cancer Society. Accessed January 4, 2012.

What you need to know about oral cancer. National Cancer Institute. Accessed January 8, 2012.

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    All content on this site is for general information purposes only. It is not and should not be considered medical advice or used in place of the advice of a medical professional. Always seek the advice of a doctor or other professional for any medical condition.