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Raise awareness of oral cancer risk factors in your practice

16 January 2024

While awareness of mouth cancer in the UK is improving, with 88% of British adults having heard of the disease compared to 65% ten years ago,[i] there is still a long way to go. Within the dental practice, it’s important to offer patients education about mouth cancer and its main risk factors, as this can help patients make informed lifestyle decisions, and monitor their own health more effectively in between appointments. Equally, practices should regularly reinforce education about oral cancer within the dental team, and the importance of checking every single patient for signs and symptoms.

What are the risk factors?

Research suggests that patients who smoke or use smokeless tobacco products, drink alcohol to excess, or have HPV are at higher risk for developing mouth cancer.[ii] By discussing these factors with every new patient, you are able to establish whether they might be at higher risk of disease, and provide them with smoking cessation advice, for example. Generally, in the UK, awareness of the main risk factors associated with mouth cancer is poor, with 65% knowing that smoking can cause mouth cancer, but only 35% identifying excessive alcohol intake as a risk.[iii]

As many patients will be aware, smoking can have a significant impact on oral and overall health. However, smoking is thought to cause around 25% of oral cancers.[iv] If your patient is a smoker, it’s important to offer them smoking cessation advice, and direct them to services which may be able to help them quit. Drinking excessive alcohol is thought to increase the risk of mouth cancer too, causing around 35% of cases in the UK. Currently, UK guidelines recommend a maximum of 14 units of alcohol per week.[v]

Patients who have HPV may also be at heightened risk of mouth cancer. The virus effects the moist areas of the body, and is a major cause of cervical cancer. HPV vaccinations are now given to both girls and boys at ages 12-13, with the aim of preventing cervical cancer, but it’s likely to also help reduce the rates of mouth cancer.[vi]


What if my patient is high risk?

Regardless of whether a patient is high risk or not, monitoring their oral health is essential. This means checking every patient for any abnormalities and referring them if you think they may have symptoms of mouth cancer. In a recent article, the Daily Mail[vii] highlighted a number of the main signs and symptoms of mouth cancer, discussing the importance of regular dental check-ups for monitoring abnormalities and catching the disease early. Between appointments, patients should be able to recognise symptoms, monitoring their own oral health on a regular basis, and seek the advice of their dentist or GP if they notice anything unusual.

In order to do this effectively, it’s important to educate patients on the risks. This is key both during appointments, and in between by featuring informative pages on the practice website, and posting important information on social media platforms. This can help make reliable information accessible for your patients.

Screening every patient

Oral cancer screening is essential for monitoring the health of every patient, and helping to catch any signs of disease as early as possible. New cases of mouth cancer have increased by 34% in the last ten years, with deaths increasing by 46% in the same time frame.[viii] A recent article from the BBC[ix] found that, as many people across the UK struggle to access regular check-up appointments with a dentist, oral cancer is not being noticed early enough, with later stage diagnoses having detrimental consequences for patients’ health.

Routine dental check-ups are the ideal time to assess if your patients are showing signs of oral cancer. Carrying out a visual examination is essential and, for your peace of mind, the BeVigilant™ OraFusion™ System from Vigilant Biosciences® enables you to undertake a quick, non-invasive test in each appointment. The system analyses the saliva to easily identify the presence of biomarkers associated with oral cancer. In 15 minutes or less, it produces a report of either low, moderate, or elevated results. By utilising this easy test in each appointment, clinicians are able to establish every patient’s level of risk, and use this to inform decisions surrounding referral, and motivate behaviour changes.

Ultimately, screening every patient for signs and symptoms of oral cancer is essential for catching the disease in its early stages, and preventing further harm to patients. It is vital to ensure everybody in the practice, patients and staff included, are aware of the risk factors associated with mouth cancer, and offer advice on reducing this risk.

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