Why you shouldn’t skip that trip to the dentist

April 19, 2017 | by Samir Undevia, MD

Do you ever wonder what the dentist is looking for when they rub your neck or why they are taking so long looking inside your mouth? In addition to evaluating the health of your teeth and gums and examining for possible problems like cavities or gingivitis, your dentist is looking for signs of cancers in your head and neck.

Head and neck cancers are cancers that start in the tissues and organs of your head and neck. Like all cancers, these types of cancers are serious. Head and neck cancers include cancers of the larynx (voice box), throat, lips, mouth, nose, and salivary glands.

There are several symptoms of head and neck cancer. They include:

  • Swelling or sore that does not heal; this is the most common symptom
  • Red or white patch in the mouth
  • Lump, bump, or mass in the head or neck area, with or without pain
  • Persistent sore throat
  • Foul mouth odor not explained by hygiene
  • Hoarseness or change in voice
  • Nasal obstruction or persistent nasal congestion
  • Frequent nose bleeds and/or unusual nasal discharge
  • Difficulty breathing or double vision
  • Numbness or weakness of a body part in the head and neck region
  • Pain or difficulty chewing, swallowing, or moving the jaw or tongue or ear and/or jaw pain
  • Blood in the saliva or phlegm, which is mucus discharged into the mouth from respiratory passages
  • Loosening of teeth or dentures that no longer fit
  • Unexplained weight loss or fatigue

Alcohol and tobacco use are the two leading risk factors for head and neck cancer. After all, 85 percent of head and neck cancers are linked just to tobacco use. Other factors that raise a person’s risk of developing head and neck cancer are:

  • Prolonged sun exposure
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Epstein-Barr virus (mono)
  • Gender, age and race
  • Poor oral or dental hygiene and poor nutrition
  • Environmental or occupational inhalants
  • Marijuana use
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and laryngopharyngeal reflux disease (LPRD)
  • Weakened immune system

By taking care of yourself and limiting alcohol and tobacco use, you can help prevent your risk of head and neck cancer. It all comes down to scheduling twice-a-year dental visits. The more often you go, the better your chances are to find any suspicious changes in your mouth. When cancer is caught early, it can be treated more easily.

How do you remind yourself to go to the dentist? Tell us in the below comments.

Learn more about preventative care.

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