What is tongue cancer?

Tongue cancer is a type of head and neck cancer. Symptoms can include a patch, spot or lump on your tongue that doesn't go away. The main risk factors are smoking, drinking a lot of alcohol and infection with the HPV virus.

The tongue

There are two parts to your tongue:

  • the oral tongue
  • 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.

Diagram showing the parts of the mouth above and below the tongue

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).

Diagram showing the parts of the oropharynx

What are the types of tongue cancer?

The most common type of tongue cancer is squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). 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 for a cancer that starts in these cells.

What are the 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

What are the 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.

What are the stages of tongue cancer?

The stage of your cancer tells you how big it is and whether it has spread. It helps your doctor decide what treatment you need.

The stage of your cancer depends on:

  • how far your cancer has grown into local tissues
  • whether it has spread to nearby lymph glands
  • whether it has spread to any other part of the body

Doctors use different staging systems. The staging system they use for you depends on where your cancer starts:

Tongue cancer that starts in the front two thirds of your tongue (oral tongue) is staged as a mouth cancer.

Tongue cancer that starts in the back third of your tongue ( base of your tongue) is staged as oropharyngeal cancer.

What is the treatment for tongue cancer?

The treatment for tongue cancer depends on:

  • the stage of your cancer
  • where the cancer is on your tongue
  • your general health
Last reviewed: 
18 Jul 2018

    Head and Neck Cancer: United Kingdom National Multidisciplinary Guidelines
    The Journal of Laryngology & Otology, 2016

  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (10th edition)
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    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2015

  • 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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