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 alcohol

Drinking alcohol increases your risk of developing oral cancer. Drinking alcohol together with smoking tobacco increases the risk for oral and other head and neck cancers more than either one alone. To reduce your cancer risk, it's best not to drink alcohol. Canada's Guidance on Alcohol and Health outlines the health risks of alcohol and can help you make an informed decision on whether you drink and how much.

If you choose to drink alcohol, keep your cancer risk as low as possible by having no more than 2 standard drinks a week. The less alcohol you drink, the lower your cancer risk.

Find out more about how to limit alcohol.

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 with multiple sexual partners. The HPV vaccine available in Canada to prevent oral cancer is Gardasil 9. This vaccine helps protect against infection with HPV types 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58.

Gardasil 9 is approved in Canada for people 9 to 45 years of age to prevent oral cancer and other head and neck cancers caused by these types of HPV.

Get vaccinated or have your children vaccinated through school-based programs where available.Talk to your doctor about which vaccine is right for you, when you should have it and vaccination programs in your area.

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.
  • Merck Canada Inc.. Product Monograph: Gardasil 9. Kirkland:

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

We do our best to make sure that the information we provide is accurate and reliable but cannot guarantee that it is error-free or complete.

The Canadian Cancer Society is not responsible for the quality of the information or services provided by other organizations and mentioned on, nor do we endorse any service, product, treatment or therapy.

1-888-939-3333 | | © 2024 Canadian Cancer Society