Do White Spots in Mouths Mean Cancer?

My teenage son has had a small white spot in his mouth for about eight days. How can I tell if this is a serious problem (like cancer) or if it will heal itself?

Question:

There are about 35,000 new cases of oral cancer diagnosed each year in the United States. This represents about 3% of all known cancers. Chewing tobacco and smoke tobacco are the major causes of oral cancer. Oral (mouth) cancers present in a variety of forms. Red velvety patches with white spots are particularly suspicious. Usually, these areas are not painful. The side of the tongue is the most common site for oral cancer. Oral cancers are also commonly diagnosed on the inside of the cheek(s).

Due to the variety of oral cancer, the best method for detection is to have a dental exam and oral cancer screening at least twice a year. If symptoms occur between appointments, schedule a dental appointment now to have the area examined. Self examination is important for many cancers (especially breast, skin, testicular, and oral cancers), but there is simply no substitute for professional evaluation. Most cancers, if detected early, have relatively high cure rates.


Generally, abnormal coloration and/or texture in the mouth can be classified as:

  1. Canker Sores--painful recurrent apthos ulcers that form near the gums and mucosa. They usually last about two weeks;
  2. Abscesses--infections around the teeth or gum tissue;
  3. Injuries--trauma to the face or mouth caused by biting the cheek, poor fitting dentures, and a multitude of other factors;
  4. Musclar Problems--jaw muscles change the way your teeth fit together causing pain and perhaps other symptoms, including teeth grinding;
  5. Burns--chemical or common thermal burns (from eating hot food) result in injury to the oral tissue;
  6. Systemic Diseases--a wide variety of diseases that begin in other areas of the body that first manifest themselves as changes in the mouth;
  7. Non-Cancerous Cysts or Tumors--these areas will need to be biopsied (removed and examined microscopically) to determine if they are cancerous tumors; and
  8. Oral Cancer--malignancies in the mouth often caused by tobacco products, alcohol, hereditary factors and/or other factors.

There are many harmless bumps and spots that appear in the mouth. You and your son should be concerned but not unduly alarmed. Have a dentist examine the area as soon as possible to determine if the condition requires treatment.

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