What Happens During an Oral Cancer Screening?

An oral cancer screening is a visual and physical examination of the oral cavity as well as connecting tissues. The purpose of the screening is to identify signs or issues that can lead to cancer. The screening can also reassure patients that there are no problems indicating the presence of oral cancer.

Why Oral Cancer Screenings Occur

Dentists suggest oral cancer screenings for those who engage in certain lifestyles such as smoking or drinking alcohol on a regular basis. Alternatively, an oral cancer screening only takes a few minutes and can be an easy step during a regular dental checkup. Thus, we recommend oral cancer screenings at least once every six months as a precautionary measure. Ideally, an oral cancer screening will catch cancer in the early stages before symptoms worsen.

This is a precautionary screening rather than a diagnostic screening. If the dentist finds any abnormalities during the exam, the patient will most likely have further screenings or have to visit a specialist. This is especially likely if the patient is a tobacco user, consumes alcohol or engages in other behaviors that heighten the risk of oral cancer. It is also possible the dentist or doctor will refer the patient for additional tests to determine the true cause of a specific symptom.

However, results that necessitate additional investigation are not an indication of a cancer diagnosis. If we find any signs of oral cancer, the patient should not lose hope. Early diagnosis is critically important to prevent the spread of cancer. The earlier that we catch signs of cancer, the greater odds of treating oral cancer effectively.

What Does the Oral Cancer Screening Entail?

Oral cancer screenings include a visual examination of the face, lips, neck, nose interior and oral cavity. The patient must remove dental appliances prior to the screening in order for all areas to be visible for examination. The dentist looks for bumps, swelling, asymmetries, ulcerations, patches of colors and other abnormalities. The dentist then uses a light and mirror to look inside the mouth and nose.

A tongue depressor holds down the tongue so the back portion of the mouth can be seen. The dentist will likely ask the patient to say “Ah” so the dentist can see portions of the throat that are otherwise difficult to observe. The patient might also have to swallow during the examination of his throat.

Devices That Assist in Oral Cancer Screenings

While there are basic levels of simple oral cancer screenings for regular checkups, there are also methods for more extensive screenings. Dentists may make use of specialized examination tools to perform oral cancer screenings. For example, the dentist might use a brush such as the Oral Cdx that collects cells for analysis. This is completely painless.

Another example of a tool commonly used during oral cancer screenings is the Orascoptic DK. This tool emits a slightly acidic mouth rinse that assists in the visual inspection of tissues. Some dentists and doctors also rely on specialized dyes for assistance.

It is also possible that a VEL scope will generate blue light that pinpoints oral tissues that appear suspicious.

Some dentists use a fiber optic camera such as the Naso-Pharyngo-Laryngoscope. The patient is provided with an anesthetic and medication before this instrument is placed in the nose and down the throat to examine the pharynx and larynx.


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