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Oral cancer: Are you asking the right questions?

April 5, 2022
Approximately one person every hour every day dies from oral cancer in the US. By asking the right questions, we can raise awareness and save lives.

Did you know that most HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers may not be visibly detectable because of their location? Anatomical sites for this virus are most often located at the back of the throat, base of tongue, or tonsil regions.1 Performing oral cancer screenings on every patient that includes an enhanced extra- and intraoral visual and tactile exam is a vital part of our role as clinicians, but is this alone enough?

According to the CDC, most sexually active people will develop an HPV infection during their lifetime, and most will not even be aware of it because 9 out of 10 of these individuals will clear this virus on their own.2 However, for some, this virus can remain dormant and return later as cancer. Educating our patients about the signs and symptoms is imperative for early discovery.

You might also be interested in: Oral cancer screening: Resources for dental professionals

During your patient interview and/or while performing your oral cancer screening, be sure to ask about the following warning signs or symptoms:3

  1. Difficulty swallowing or a sensation that something is stuck in their throat
  2. A persistent cough that does not resolve after several days/weeks
  3. Any change or hoarseness in voice that persists for more than a few weeks
  4. Unilateral ear pain
  5. Any painless, fixated lumps on the outside of the head/neck present for two or more weeks

Positive responses to any of the above questions warrant a referral to a specialist. Please remember that approximately one person every hour of every day dies from oral cancer in the US.4 Dental hygienists are the front line of defense in early discovery. Our efforts through education and awareness campaigns can save lives! Please the fight to beat oral cancer.

Originally published in 2020. Updated in April 2022.


1.     HPV and Oropharyngeal Cancer. Center for Disease Control. Page last reviewed March 14, 2018.

2.     About HPV. Centers for Disease Control. Page last reviewed April 29, 2019.

3.     HPV/Oral Cancer Facts. The Oral Cancer Foundation.

4.     Cancer Stat Facts: Oral Cavity and Pharynx Cancer. National Cancer Institute.

About the Author

Alison Stahl, BS, RDH

Alison Stahl, BS, RDH, has been practicing clinically as a registered dental hygienist for over 17 years. She has also been an educator and speaks professionally on topics related to oral cancer and implant maintenance. As an RDH Advisory Board member for the Oral Cancer Foundation, she also advocates for oral cancer awareness and early detection through opportunistic screenings. She has launched initiatives to raise awareness about oral cancer by coordinating several walk/run and fundraising campaigns along with a multitude of free public screening events. Stahl is a recipient of the 2014 Sunstar Award of Distinction and the 2013 Young Dental Caring Clinician Award for her work related to these outreach efforts. 

Updated May 28, 2020