What is Oral Squamous Cell Carcinoma?

D. Jeffress

Oral squamous cell carcinoma is the most common form of mouth cancer that is usually caused by excessive alcohol and tobacco use. Cancer of the mouth usually manifests as small discolored lesions on the tongue, gums, inner lips, or the floor or roof of the mouth. Patients do not typically experience pain, though swelling and irritation can arise in the later stages of cancer. When detected early, most cases of oral squamous cell carcinoma can be treated with surgery or radiation therapy combined with healthy lifestyle changes. Advanced carcinoma tends to spread quickly, however, and can lead to cancer in throat tissue and lymph nodes in the neck.

Good oral hygiene may help prevent oral squamous cell carcinoma.
Good oral hygiene may help prevent oral squamous cell carcinoma.

Squamous cells make up the outermost layer of tissue in the mouth, and are the most susceptible to oral cancer. Affected tissue can turn red or brown and emerge as elevated open lesions. Some lesions appear as white bumps that are rough to the touch. In most cases, the lesions do not cause physical pain or discomfort. As the cancer spreads, more lesions tend to appear and an individual may experience a sore throat and slight swelling and irritation of the tongue, gums, or soft palate.

The more a person smokes and drinks, and the longer they partake in those activities, the higher their chances of developing cancer.
The more a person smokes and drinks, and the longer they partake in those activities, the higher their chances of developing cancer.

The vast majority of patients diagnosed with oral squamous cell carcinoma are heavy drinkers or tobacco users. The more a person drinks, smokes, or chews tobacco daily, and the longer he or she has been engaging in such habits, the higher the chances of developing cancer. Other causes of carcinoma include poor oral hygiene, tooth erosion, dietary deficiencies, and viral infections such as the human papillomavirus. When a specific cause cannot be identified, doctors term the condition idiopathic.

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Early detection of oral squamous cell carcinoma is important to help prevent the cancer from spreading to other parts of the body. Doctors can usually diagnose oral cancer by physically examining lesions and taking a biopsy of suspicious tissue. Laboratory analysis of tissue samples can confirm that lesions are cancerous.

Most cases of oral squamous cell carcinoma are treated surgically. A surgeon can cut away lesions and nearby damaged tissue. In serious cases, entire sections of the lower lip, gum, or tongue may need to be removed. If cancer persists after surgical procedures, doctors may decide to administer radiation therapy treatments. Follow-up examinations are important to ensure that all cancerous tissue has been removed. Doctors generally suggest that postoperative patients abstain from tobacco products and alcohol and establish good oral hygiene practices to prevent future issues.

Frequent tobacco use can lead to oral squamous cell carcinoma.
Frequent tobacco use can lead to oral squamous cell carcinoma.

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Discussion Comments


If the definite etiology of cancers were known a cure would have been found long ago. There are many cancers that are idiopathic. Not everyone who drinks or smokes gets cancer and not everyone who does not drink or smoke does not get cancer. There are no "rules" for cancers.


My husband was diagnosed with mouth cancer 5 years ago. He's been treated and has been given the all clear, but it's been a tough road for him and for my family.

He has never smoked a cigarette in his life, and this last comment was extremely offensive. Don't assume that all cancer patients are smokers.


I had no clue that drinking heavily could cause a squamous cell carcinoma of the oral cavity! I mean, I obviously know that drinking heavily is generally bad for you, but cancer? I would never have guessed! I guess this is just another reason not to drink too much.

Anyway, I find it kind of disturbing that this kind of cancer is pretty much painless. I feel like it would be easy not to notice a small lesion in your mouth, especially if it doesn't hurt. I would imagine most people find out they have this at their yearly visit to the dentist instead of noticing it themselves.


@JessicaLynn - Oral cancer treatment does sound mighty unpleasant. And I agree with you about smoking. It's pretty crazy anyone takes up the habit anymore.

However, I just wanted to remind everyone that smoking isn't the only thing that causes oral cancer. So if you see someone who has been through oral cancer treatment, don't just assume that it's because they were a smoker or a heavy drinker. Like the article says, HPV can cause it too. And some cases just appear for no reason! So you never really know.


When I hear about cancer, oral or otherwise, that's caused by smoking, I wonder why anyone even smokes anymore. I mean, I can understand why people used to smoke, before we knew how bad it was for you. But these days, everyone knows smoking is harmful to your health! It even says it right one the pack of cigarettes! There's just no excuse for starting.

Oral cancer sounds awful. I would never want to risk having to have part of my lip or tongue removed just so I could enjoy a cigarette! Not to mention the fact that cancer can also kill you.

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