Tongue cancer normally occurs in the squamous, or skin cells. Symptoms of tongue cancer either in the front or middle of your tongue makes it oral cancer – if they’re at the base of your tongue it comes under the heading of throat or oropharyngeal cancer. When looking for tongue cancer symptoms, watch out for the following persistent signs:
• Red, pink, grey or white spots on tongue
• Sore spots on tongue
• Leukoplakia or erythroplakia on tongue
• Sore throat
• Pain when swallowing
• Mouth numbness
• Unexplained bleeding of tongue
• Pain in the ear (very rare)
• Changes in your voice
• Tongue swelling
Red, Pink, Grey or White Spots on Tongue – These symptoms of tongue cancer start small and may look like canker sores, especially if they occur in other places in your mouth. Canker sores tend to go away in a week or two.
White spots on tongue might also indicate oral thrush or hairy tongue, but you’ll be able to gently scrape these off yourself. Remember, persistency is one of the main factors for symptoms of tongue cancer, along with tongue pain.
Leukoplakia & Erythroplakia – These are products of uncontrolled cell growth, one of the very definitions of cancer. But figuring out if they are actual tongue cancer symptoms or just irritations from your dental work depends on a biopsy. They might also be pre-cancerous, so it’s best to see your dentist about these swelling or thickening patches right away.
Pain, Numbness & Bleeding – If you’re getting a burning sensation, it’s possible you suffer from burning mouth syndrome or geographic tongue rather than cancer. Sharp tongue pains and persistent soreness are more dangerous. And persistent sore throat pain is one of the oropharyngeal tongue cancer symptoms.
Watch for easy bleeding should you happen to bite your tongue or if you merely touch a trouble spot. (But oral thrush patches might also bleed if you try to remove those.)
Tongue pain, swelling and numbness as symptoms of tongue cancer could indicate that the disease moved deeper into your nerve cells. And tongue swelling may be a symptom of other, non-oral cancers.
More Tongue Pain Considerations
When you see or feel possible tongue cancer symptoms and begin wondering about tongue cancer treatments, ask yourself these questions:
1. Do you use tobacco in any form? Does your tobacco use go hand-in-hand with alcohol use?
2. Are you over age 40?
3. Are you a male?
4. Are you of African-American descent?
If you spot potential symptoms of tongue cancer, and answered yes to any or all of the above questions, you should have a dentist do a checkup immediately. The American Dental Association (ADA) says people who use alcohol or tobacco (especially together), people over 40, and especially African-Americans, tend to be at higher risks for mouth and throat cancers. (As more and more women take up smoking, the gender gap in oral cancer risks decreases.)
The Bottom Line
About 25 percent of oral cancer patients have no risk factors at all, according to the ADA. Throat or tongue pain, bleeding and numbness; discolorations like white spots on tongue, swellings, patches or sores of any type should be monitored as potential tongue cancer symptoms. And if they occur elsewhere in your mouth, they might indicate other oral cancers.
If the symptoms last more than a week or two, see your dentist. They might not be symptoms of tongue cancer at all, but it’s better to be safe and gain some peace of mind. And if they’re not, you may just need adjustments to your dentures, dental crowns, fillings or some anti-fungal medications.