Oral Cancer Screening


What is oral cancer screening?

Oral cancer screening is an exam to look for signs of cancer in the oral cavity. Cancers in the oral cavity include mouth cancer, jaw cancer and tongue cancer. A doctor or a dentist may do the exam.

The areas examined during oral cancer screening include:

  • Cheek lining
  • Floor and roof of mouth
  • Gums
  • Lips
  • Tongue
  • Tonsils

Why is oral cancer screening done?

Doctors and dentists use oral cancer screening to find cancer before symptoms develop. When doctors find oral cancer early, treatment may be more successful.

Test Details

What happens during oral cancer screening?

During oral cancer screening, your doctor or dentist will look for lesions (areas of abnormal tissue) in the mouth and throat. These abnormalities may include leukoplakia (thick white patches) and erythroplakia (abnormally red areas). This exam typically takes less than five minutes.

Sometimes your dentist (or doctor) uses special dyes and lights to look for signs of oral cancer. These tests include:

  • Exfoliative cytology: Collecting cells from the mouth with a brush, piece of cotton or wooden stick and looking at them under a microscope to see if they are abnormal
  • Fluorescence staining: Shining a special light on lesions after using a fluorescent mouth rinse to identify abnormal tissue
  • Toluidine blue stain: Coating mouth lesions with a blue dye to identify areas that are more likely to become cancerous

How do I prepare for oral cancer screening?

You do not need to do anything to prepare for oral cancer screening. The exam usually takes place during a routine dental or physical checkup.

Results and Follow-Up

What do the results of oral cancer screening mean?

Oral cancer screening looks for signs of cancer but does not diagnose it.

If the screening indicates cancer may be present, your doctor or dentist may recommend a test called a biopsy. During this test, your doctor or dentist collects a sample of cells from the lesion. A pathologist studies the cells for signs of cancer.

Your doctor may also recommend a follow-up visit in a week or so to see if the lesion has changed or healed on its own.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 04/11/2019.


  • American Dental Association. Oral Cancer. (https://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/o/oral-cancer) Accessed 5/14/2019.
  • National Cancer Institute. Oral Cavity, Pharyngeal, and Laryngeal Cancer Screening (PDQ®)-Patient Version. (https://www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/patient/oral-screening-pdq#section/_24) Accessed 5/14/2019.
  • The Oral Cancer Foundation. Cancer screening protocols. (https://oralcancerfoundation.org/discovery-diagnosis/cancer-screening-protocols/) Accessed 5/14/2019.

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