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About tongue cancer

Read about the types of tongue cancer and the possible symptoms.

What tongue cancer is

There are two parts to your tongue: the oral tongue and the base of the tongue. Cancer can develop in either part.

The oral tongue is the part you see when you poke your tongue out at someone. This is the front two thirds of your tongue. Cancers that develop in this part of the tongue come under a group of cancers called mouth (oral) cancer.

The base of the tongue is the back third of the tongue. This part is very near your throat (pharynx). Cancers that develop in this part are called oropharyngeal cancers (pronounced oar-o-farin-gee-al).

Types of tongue cancer

The most common type of tongue cancer is squamous cell carcinoma (SCCA). Squamous cells are the flat, skin like cells that cover the lining of the mouth, nose, larynx, thyroid and throat. Squamous cell carcinoma is the name given to a cancer that starts in these cells.

Symptoms of tongue cancer

The symptoms of tongue cancer might include:

  • a red or white patch on the tongue that won't go away
  • a sore throat that doesn't go away
  • a sore spot (ulcer) or lump on the tongue that doesn't go away
  • pain when swallowing
  • numbness in the mouth that won't go away
  • unexplained bleeding from the tongue (that's not caused by biting your tongue or other injury)
  • pain in the ear (rare)

It's important to remember that these symptoms might be due to a less serious medical condition. But it's best to check symptoms with your GP just to make sure.

The photos below give you an idea of what tongue cancers can look like, but remember that they might appear differently from this. Contact your GP or dentist if you notice anything abnormal.

This picture shows cancer on the side of the tongue.

Photo showing cancer on the tongue

And below is a picture of a red patch underneath the tongue.

Photograph showing mouth cancer under tongue

Risks and causes of tongue cancer

We don’t know the exact causes of most head and neck cancers, but several risk factors have been identified. 

Smoking tobacco (cigarettes, cigars and pipes) and drinking a lot of alcohol are the main risk factors for cancers of the head and neck in the western world. The HPV virus transmitted through sexual contact is another risk factor. 

Having a risk factors means that your risk is increased. But it does not mean that you will definitely develop cancer.

Treatment

The treatment for tongue cancer depends on the size of your cancer and whether or not it has spread to the lymph nodes in your neck.

Last reviewed: 
23 Oct 2014
  • Head and Neck Cancer: Multidisciplinary Management Guidelines
    British Association of Otorhinolaryngology, 2011

  • Cancer: Principles and practice of oncology (9th edition)
    VT De Vita, S Hellman and SA Rosenberg
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2011

  • Interventions for the treatment of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer: chemotherapy
    Furness S (and others)
    Cochrane Database Systematic Review, 2011, Volume 4

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