Screening for mouth and oropharyngeal cancer

There is no national screening programme for mouth and oropharyngeal cancer. 

What is screening?

Screening means testing people for early stages of a disease. This is before they have any symptoms. For screening to be useful the tests:

  • need to be reliable at picking up cancers
  • overall must do more good than harm to people taking part
  • must be something that people are willing to do

Screening tests are not perfect and have some risks. The screening programme should also be good value for money for the NHS.

No screening available

There is no national screening programme for mouth and oropharyngeal cancer. This is because:

  • these cancers are relatively uncommon, so many people would have unnecessary tests
  • the benefits of possible screening tests don't outweigh the risks

Research is looking into possible screening programmes for head and neck cancers. It could be that it is most cost effective to screen people who have an increased risk of developing these cancers.

For example, people who both smoke and drink are at higher risk of mouth and throat cancers. Also, the numbers of people with these cancers associated with the HPV virus is increasing. 

We need more research to:

  • find out if screening these groups of people will help to pick cancers up early 
  • work out which tests are the best to use 

What you can do

You can do a couple of things to find early signs of mouth and oropharyngeal cancer. It is important to:

  • have regular dental check ups, at least yearly (even if you have false teeth)
  • check inside your mouth with a small mirror to look for changes

Many dentists routinely check for mouth and oropharyngeal cancer. So they are often the first people to spot the early signs of cancer. If the dentist suspects cancer they can refer you to a specialist.  

Report any changes to your GP or dentist, especially if you smoke and drink a lot of alcohol. They can examine you and refer you to a specialist if needed.

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