We don’t know what causes most mouth cancers. However, there are several factors that are likely to increase your risk.

Around 90% of mouth cancers can be linked to preventable lifestyle factors such as smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.

If you do not stop or reduce the things that might put you at greater risk, it is important that you do self-checks at home and regularly visit your dentist.

Please be aware of your risk.

The below causes are linked to mouth cancer.

If any, most or all of these apply to you, this does not mean that you are certain to develop mouth cancer.


Smoking tobacco increases your risk of developing mouth cancer by up to ten times, compared with never-smokers.This includes smoking cigarettes, pipes or cigars.

Around two in every three (more than 60%) mouth cancers are linked to smoking.

There is also evidence that second-hand smoke at home or in the workplace may increase a person’s risk of mouth cancer. 


Drinking alcohol to excess increases your risk of mouth cancer. Alcohol is linked to just under a third (30%) of all mouth cancers.

Smoking and drinking together increases the risk of mouth cancer by up to 30 times.

UK guidelines recommend a maximum of 14 units of alcohol a week for both men and women.


Many recent reports have linked mouth cancer to the human papillomavirus (HPV).

HPV is the major cause of cervical cancer and affects the skin that lines the moist areas of the body. HPV can be spread through oral sex, and research suggests that it could soon rival smoking and drinking as one of the main causes of mouth cancer.

Practicing safe sex and limiting the number of partners you have may help reduce your chances of contracting HPV.

There are now HPV vaccines for both girls and boys. They were developed to fight cervical cancer, but it is likely that they will also help to reduce the rates of mouth cancer. These vaccines are given at age 12 to 13 before sexual activity starts.

Chewing and smokeless tobacco

Smokeless tobacco is any tobacco product that is placed in the mouth or nose and not burned.

Chewing and smokeless tobacco is extremely harmful and can significantly increase a person's risk of being diagnosed with mouth cancer. 

The types of smokeless tobacco products most used contain a mix of ingredients including slaked lime, areca nut and spices, flavourings and sweeteners.

The terminology for smokeless tobacco varies, but the main types used in the UK include:

  • Gutka, Khaini, Pan Masala (betel quid), Shammah and Maras powder (these are sucked or chewed);

  • Zarda, Qiwam, or Mawa (chewed);

  • Lal dantmanjan, Gadakhu, Gul, Mishri, or Creamy Snuff (dental products which are used as toothpaste or rubbed on gums);

  • Nass (can be used nasally, sucked or chewed).

Smokeless tobacco is often popular with South Asian communities.


Around a third of mouth cancers are thought to be linked to an unhealthy diet and a lack of vitamins and minerals.

It is recommended that you eat a healthy, balanced diet including lots of fruit and vegetables each day.

Increasing evidence also suggests that Omega 3, found in foods such as eggs and fish, can help lower your risk. Foods high in fibre such as nuts, seeds, whole-wheat pasta and brown rice, are also said to do the same.

Sunlight and sunbeds

Too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a known cause of skin cancer. This can occur either from natural sunlight or sunbeds.

Skin cancer can develop on the lips – as this area is often exposed to UV radiation.

Cancer history

Those who have had a mouth cancer are at greater risk of developing it again. 

There are also other cancers which can mean a person is more likely to get mouth cancer. These include:

  • Oesophagus cancer (of the food pipe) 

  • Squamous cell skin cancer 

  • Cervical cancer 

  • Penile cancer 

  • Anal cancer 

Family history, genetics and the immune system

Although we do not know why, there is a slight increase in risk of mouth cancer if you have a close relative diagnosed with the disease.

Mouth cancer can also be more likely for those who carry certain inherited genes. Links have been found for those with genetic conditions affecting the bone marrow, skin or fingernails.

Research also shows those undergoing treatment for HIV or AIDS, and those taking medication after organ transplants are slightly more at risk of mouth cancer. This is because some of the medication in these cases can weaken the immune system.

Useful links:

Mouth Cancer Action Month is sponsored by Simplyhealth Professionals and in association with the Mouth Cancer Foundation.

We are proud and delighted to be working alongside both our partners. Their commitment and passion for raising awareness of mouth cancer is vital to the success of our campaign.