You know that feeling you get when someone is watching out for you? Sometimes it’s the “warm and fuzzies” but sometimes it feels a lot more like pure gratitude. Like when someone flashes their brights at you to let you know that you need to turn your headlights on when you’re making a midnight run to HEB for ice cream–or when someone points out a slippery floor in the grocery store to keep you from falling (when you’re running down the aisle to get to that ice cream). It’s nice to know that people are looking out for you.
Well, did you know your dentist looks out for you, too? While it’s not always specifically mentioned, your hygienist and dentist are doing a thorough oral cancer screening on you at every 6 month check up. What they’re keeping an eye on is the tissue surrounding your lips, gums, throat, the insides of your cheeks, the roof of your mouth, and the tongue–including that area beneath the tongue where slivers of popcorn get trapped. They’re looking for changes in color, which might include white or red patches inside the mouth, sores that are having difficulty healing, mouth pain, loose teeth, or numbness. An external exam of the temporomandibular joints (TMJ), jaw muscles, and lymph nodes may also be performed.
So what can cause abnormal changes in your mouth? I think it’s pretty well known at this point that tobacco use can wreak havoc on your mouth. So can a lot of alcohol… so can the sun… so can a weakened immune system. Another leading cause of oral cancer is the sexually transmitted virus, human papillomavirus (HPV).
Conversely, the way we can minimize our risks for oral cancer is to moderate the stuff we just talked about. The best thing to do is ditch the tobacco! All of it–the cigarettes, the dip, the vapes, the e-cigs… the chemicals in tobacco are the leading cause of several types of cancers, not just oral cancer. Plus, you’ll smell nicer, be healthier, and maybe have a bit more pocket money as well. Be Goldilocks with the alcohol–not too much, not too often. Wear sunscreen every day and make sure your lip balm has an SPF. Practice your, ahem, “intimate extracurriculars” safely and responsibly.
What happens if Dr. Whitehouse or your hygienist sees something out of the norm during your exam? First, don’t sound the alarm bells! Don’t go all WebMD and diagnose yourself with diseases that can only happen on remote islands!
Our mouths go through heck and back during a single day. Ever bit into a Totino’s pizza roll straight out of the microwave? It’s like biting into delicious molten lava. And yeah, that’s probably going to leave a mark which can look like something but is actually nothing.
The first thing the doc will do after seeing something suspicious is to be cautious and monitor it, usually with a two week follow up appointment. If there’s still anything out of the ordinary at the second visit, there may be a need for a referral to a specialist for a biopsy.
Watch our Hygiene Hump Day video for a recap on what we are watching out for when we screen for Oral Cancer during your scheduled cleaning visits.