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Most people are familiar with the oral exams that they receive when they go to the dentist. But, aside from looking for cavities and other common issues, dentists and oral hygienists are also screening for oral cancer, often caused by the human papillomavirus, otherwise known as HPV. In the United States alone, 79 million people have HPV and each year, 8,400 people are diagnosed with cancers caused by HPV including those of the tongue, the tonsils and soft tissue at the roof of the mouth near the back. Often a visit to the dentist is our first line of defense towards diagnosis of a head and neck cancer that may otherwise go undetected.
When checking our oral health, a dentist will go through a variety of steps in order to do a thorough evaluation and assessment.
Determining Cancer Risk By Understanding Oral History
A dental exam will start with gathering medical history information. Because signs of oral cancer can be hard to detect, this step is one of the most important elements of the dental visit. It will tell the dental provider if there are things they need to pay particular attention to, or may help in the overall decision making process related to oral care. It can also provide the dentist with a good idea of a family’s oral health and identify any hereditary issues that may increase a person’s chances for having or developing oral cancer.
Some common questions a dentist may ask include are whether a person has noticed changes in swallowing. Having swallowing problems may not be painful, but may be noticeable. They may also ask if a person experiences chronic hoarseness that has lasted for more than two weeks. As well, the dentist might ask if a person has noticed lumps on the side of their neck when shaving or putting on make-up. Any history of persistent ear aches, especially on one side of the head or the other is something else a patient may be asked about. Finally, any changes in voice noticed by others may also be something that a dentist asks about.
Checking For Mouth And Throat Cancers Through Visual Inspection
Once a dentist has a thorough and complete history of a person’s oral health and any possible hereditary oral health issue they will perform a comprehensive dental exam. While these exams may vary depending on the person providing the dental care, a few of the things that a person can expect during the exam include, a visual examination of the lips, neck, face and mouth to check for any visible signs of cancer. There may be subtle clues that indicate an issue that needs to be examined further, such as swelling, slurring in a person’s words or droopiness in the face and neck. The dental professional may physically feel the neck and the inside of the mouth for tissue abnormalities such as patches that are red or white or overly thickened areas of the mouth. They will also check the tongue for abnormal color, texture or swelling.
Using Oral Screening Devices To Check For Cancer
Some dental professionals now use special oral cancer screening devices to help them identify abnormal areas in the mouth before they are even visible to the naked eye. One such device, called the VELscope, is a non-invasive oral cancer screening system that uses a special blue light that that causes health oral tissue to naturally glow when exposed to the light. Unhealthy tissue, such as cancer, sores or infections will disrupt the light, helping the dentist identify serious oral health issues sooner and more accurately than with traditional oral cancer exams.
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