27 Mar 2018

New research1 has discovered that non-smokers face a substantially higher risk of developing mouth cancer than smokers if they have precancerous lesions in their mouth.

The research from the University of British Columbia, published in Oral Oncology, looked at almost 450 patients with precancerous oral lesions and discovered that non-smokers were more than twice as likely to see them develop into mouth cancer than smokers.

In some cases, non-smokers with lesions on the floor of the mouth were a staggering 38 times more likely to develop into cancer than in smokers.

The researchers speculated that the difference between smokers and non-smokers was due to a difference in the root causes of the lesions. In smokers, they were likely the result of environmental factors, whereas in non-smokers, genetic susceptibility or mutations were the probable cause.

Following the release of this startling research, leading health charity, the Oral Health Foundation is calling on everybody to be alert to the early signs of mouth cancer, as catching cases early can have a significant difference in their chances of beating the disease. 

Dr Nigel Carter, Chief Executive of the Oral Health Foundation said: "Smoking may be the leading cause of mouth cancer, linked to around three in every four cases, but non-smokers need to be just as vigilant in spotting and acting on any changes to the mouth.

"Catching mouth cancer early can dramatically increase your chances of beating the disease so it is vitally important to check regularly for the early warning.

"Everybody should be alert to mouth ulcers which do not heal within three weeks, red or white patches in the mouth and any unusual lumps in the head and neck area. If anybody has any of these signs, you should visit your dentist or doctor straight away.

"Mouth cancer is beatable, but you must act quickly. The key to this is being alert to the early warning signs and seeking immediate help when you notice anything suspicious.

"In addition to conducting self-checks at home, the more regularly you pay visits to the dentist, the better chance you have to spot anything unusual at an earlier stage."

Lead author of the study and a clinical research coordinator with British Columbia Cancer, Leigha Rock, stressed importance of taking oral lesions seriously, especially when they occur in non-smokers: 

"If you see a lesion in a smoker, be worried. If you see a lesion in a non-smoker, be very worried. Don't assume it can't be cancer because they're a non-smoker; our research indicates non-smokers may be at higher risk."

In the United Kingdom, more than 7,500 people are now diagnosed with mouth cancer each year. 

Mouth cancer rates have increased by more than two thirds within the last two decades and are predicted to continue increasing the coming years. It is therefore vital that everybody is alert to the signs, symptoms and causes of the disease. 

Visit www.mouthcancer.org to find out more about mouth cancer.


1. Rock, L., Rosin, M., Zhang, L., Chan, B., Shariati, B. and Laronde, D. (2018). Characterization of epithelial oral dysplasia in non-smokers: First steps towards precision medicine. Oral Oncology, 78, pp.119-125.