All you need to know about smoking and mouth cancer – Make Smoking History

Skip to main content.
Make Smoking History logo
Start of main content

All you need to know about smoking and mouth cancer

Around 8,300 people are diagnosed with mouth cancer each year in the UK, and around two in every three mouth cancers are linked to smoking.

Around 8,300 people are diagnosed with mouth cancer each year in the UK, and around two in every three mouth cancers are linked to smoking. That’s why this Mouth Cancer Action Month we’re raising awareness of what to look out for and how you can reduce your risk by quitting smoking.

What is mouth cancer?

Cancer is a condition where cells in the body grow and reproduce uncontrollably. The cancerous cells can invade and destroy surrounding healthy tissue.

Mouth cancer, also known as oral cancer, can start in different parts of the mouth, including the lips, salivary glands, tongue, gums, palate and inside of the cheeks.

Mouth cancer is a type of cancer that comes under the umbrella term ‘cancers of the head and neck’.  It can grow and spread very quickly so it is essential that you see a GP or dentist as soon as possible if you think you may have any of the signs and symptoms.

What causes mouth cancer?

The leading causes of mouth cancer in the UK are tobacco and alcohol. Your risk of mouth cancer increases further if you drink alcohol and smoke.

Smoking tobacco increases your risk of developing mouth cancer by up to 10 times, compared with people who have never smoked.

You’re also more at risk of mouth cancer if you:

  • chew tobacco or other smokeless tobacco products
  • have an unhealthy diet
  • have poor dental hygiene
  • contract the human papilloma virus (HPV)
  • chew betel buts – a tradition in many South Asian countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka

Mouth cancer is more common in men than women, though an increasing number of women are being diagnosed with the disease.

What are the symptoms of mouth cancer?

The most common symptoms of mouth cancer are:

  • mouth ulcers that do not heal within several weeks
  • unexplained, persistent lumps in the mouth or neck (lymph glands) that do not go away

Other symptoms may include:

  • pain or difficulty swallowing or moving your jaw
  • changes in your voice or problems with speech
  • unintentional weight loss
  • bleeding or numbness in the mouth
  • teeth that become loose for no obvious reason
  • red or white patches on the lining of your mouth

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, contact your GP or dentist as quickly as possible. If you have mouth cancer, early detection can considerably improve your treatment.

Find out more about mouth cancer symptoms on the NHS website.

How do I reduce my risk of developing mouth cancer?

You can reduce your risk of mouth cancer by not smoking or chewing tobacco, only drinking alcohol in moderation, and seeing your dentist regularly. Taking regular exercise and eating a healthy diet can also reduce your risk of cancer.

There is no safe level of smoking. Even smoking less than one cigarette per day is harmful. Stopping smoking will reduce your risk from mouth cancer and other cancers such as lung, pharynx (upper throat), nose and sinuses, larynx (voice box), oesophagus (food pipe), liver, pancreas and more.

Phil's story

Phil Sledden-Houston, 51, from Middleton in Greater Manchester, quit smoking in April 2018 after being diagnosed with Stage 4 mouth cancer.

A team of surgeons operated on Phil for over 15 hours, where they effectively cut his face in half, removed his cheek bone, eye and palate. Part of his hip bone was then used to replace the removed part and reconstruct his face.

The dad of two couldn’t talk or eat properly for six months, he lost a lot of weight and also had to spend time in a wheelchair to recover whilst in hospital. It took Phil months to be able to walk due to having part of his hip bone removed. He was also left slightly disfigured as the nerves in his face were damaged during surgery.

Read Phil’s story.

Need help to quit smoking?

The addictive substance in cigarettes is nicotine which causes a powerful addiction in the brain. However, nicotine on its own is relatively harmless. The illnesses and diseases caused by smoking come from the thousands of other toxic chemicals in tobacco smoke.

One way of the best ways to stop smoking is by using nicotine that doesn’t come from tobacco. It’s not possible to overdose on nicotine, but it’s possible that you may not use enough when trying to quit which could make you still want to smoke tobacco. That’s why it’s important to use the right level of nicotine for you.

Nicotine replacement therapy, such as patches, sprays and gum, are safe sources of nicotine and are very effective in helping a smoker to stop as long as the level of nicotine is right. Vaping is significantly less harmful than smoking tobacco (e-cigarettes don’t contain tobacco) and have helped many smokers stop smoking tobacco entirely. There are also prescribed medications that can break the addiction to nicotine in the brain.

So, there is more help than ever before to stop smoking. The best chance of stopping is with a combination of personalised support and a stop smoking aid – like nicotine replacement, e-cigarettes, or medication.

For help to stop smoking, speak to your Local Stop Smoking Service, GP or pharmacist, or call the NHS Stop Smoking helpline free on 0300 123 1044. Greater Manchester residents can also get six months’ free access to the Smoke Free app – usually worth £60 – by signing up online at (T&Cs apply).

Content in this article has been reviewed by Miss Susannah Penney, Consultant Head and Neck Surgeon.