Reducing your risk for oral cancer

You may lower your risk of developing oral cancer by doing the following.

Be a non-smoker and avoid smokeless tobacco

The best way to reduce your risk for oral cancer is to avoid all forms of tobacco, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, snuff and second-hand smoke.

If you smoke, get help to quit. Quitting reduces your risk for oral cancer. Former smokers have a lower risk of oral cancer than current smokers. The longer you go without smoking or using smokeless tobacco, the lower your risk of developing oral cancer.

Limit the amount of alcohol you drink

The less alcohol you drink, the lower your risk of developing oral cancer. If you choose to drink alcohol, keep it to less than 1 drink per day if you’re a woman and less than 2 drinks per day if you’re a man.

Don’t smoke or use smokeless tobacco if you drink alcohol. Using tobacco and alcohol together increases the risk for oral cancer more than using either one alone.

Avoid chewing betel quid or areca nut

Chewing betel quid or areca nut increases your risk of developing oral cancer. Betel quid, or paan, is areca nut (the seed from the fruit of the oriental palm) and lime wrapped in a betel leaf. Some people chew areca nut by itself.

Chewing betel quid or areca nut is common in South Asia and among some South-Asian immigrants in Canada.

Get vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV)

HPV can infect the mouth, especially if you have oral sex and multiple sexual partners. The 3 HPV vaccines available in Canada are Gardasil, Cervarix and Gardasil 9. These vaccines help protect against infection with HPV-16 and HPV-18, the 2 types of HPV linked with different types of cancer, including oral cancer. Gardasil 9 also protects against 5 other types of HPV that can cause cancer.

These vaccines help lower the risk of HPV-related cancers, like cervical cancer. Recent studies show that they may also help lower the risk of oral and throat cancers, but more research is needed.

Get vaccinated or have your children vaccinated through school-based programs where available. If you are not eligible for a free vaccination, talk to your doctor about which vaccine is right for you and when you should have it.

Reduce your exposure to HPV

The only sure way to prevent HPV infection is to completely avoid any genital contact with another person. If you are young, delay having sex. If you are sexually active, you can reduce your risk of exposure to HPV by:

  • having as few sexual partners as possible
  • being in a monogamous relationship with someone who hasn’t had a lot of sexual partners
  • using a condom

Using a condom can lower the risk of HPV infection if it is put on before skin-to-skin sexual contact. However, areas not covered by a condom still allow some skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity. So using condoms will reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of HPV infection.

Protect yourself from the sun

When you are outside, use a lip balm with SPF to help lower your risk for lip cancer. Seek shade or create your own shade. Wear a hat with a wide brim that covers your head, face, ears and neck.

Reduce the amount of time you spend in the sun between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the sun’s rays are at their strongest, or any time of the day when the UV Index is 3 or more. In Canada the UV Index can be 3 or more from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. between April and September, even when it’s cloudy.

Eat vegetables and fruit

Eating a variety of vegetables and fruit each day protects against oral cancer. Carotenoids are substances found in yellow and orange vegetables and fruit as well as dark green vegetables. Studies show that carotenoids lower the risk of oral cancer by limiting damage to cells in the mouth.

Practise good mouth care

Good mouth care means keeping all of your mouth, including your teeth, gums and tongue, clean and healthy. Brush your teeth after meals and before you go to bed. Floss your teeth every day. If you wear dentures, clean them every day. When your dentures don’t fit properly or cause sore spots in your mouth, talk to your dentist about having them fitted again.

Have regular checkups by your dentist, even if you don’t have natural teeth. Your dentist can help find and treat problems in the mouth that could lead to cancer.

Find out if you’re at high risk

Some people have a higher than average risk for oral cancer. This includes people who have already had oral cancer, who are at a higher risk of developing another oral cancer. Talk to your doctor about your risk. If it’s higher than average, you may need to visit your doctor or dentist more often to check the mouth for cancer.

More information about preventing cancer

Learn what you can do to prevent cancer.

Expert review and references

  • D'Souza G and Dempsey A . The role of HPV in head and neck cancer and review of the HPV vaccine. Preventive Medicine. Elsevier; 2011.
  • Health Canada. Healthy Living: Sun Safety Basics. Ottawa, ON: Health Canada; 2011.
  • Mayne, S. T., Morse, D.E. & Winn, D.M . Cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx. Schottenfeld, D. & Fraumeni, J. F. Jr. (Eds.). Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press; 2006: 35:674-693.
  • National Cancer Institute. FactSheet: Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccines. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute; 2011.
  • National Cancer Institute. Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer Prevention (PDQ®) Health Professional Version. 2016.