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Tongue Cancer: Everything You Need To Know

Medically reviewed by John Paul Abrina, MD · Oncology · Davao Doctors Hospital

Written by Hello Doctor Medical Panel · Updated Jul 06, 2022

Tongue Cancer: Everything You Need To Know

Tongue cancer is a common type of oral cancer that can involve the front and base of the tongue. If the cancer is located on the frontal part of the tongue it is classified as an oral cavity cancer. On the other hand, if it is located on the base of the tongue, it is called oropharyngeal cancer. Since the base of the tongue sits close to the throat, it will most likely affect it and develop cancer in that area as well. 

There are numerous types of tongue cancer and the most common one is called squamous cell carcinoma. This affects the lining of the mouth, nose, larynx, and throat. 

As mentioned, this type of cancer is common, especially in men over the age of 60. This type of cancer is uncommon in women aged 40 below.

tongue cancer

Signs and Symptoms 

Below is a list of the signs and symptoms of tongue cancer:

Oral Tongue Cancer

  • There will be a pinkish-red sore located on the tongue. It is likely that these sores will not heal over time. 
  • The sore is prone to bleeding if touched or bitten. 
  • There will be a lump on the side of the tongue that may come in contact with the teeth. 

Base Tongue Cancer 

  • If the squamous cell is located on the base of the tongue it is usually asymptomatic at first. The signs will only emerge once the squamous cell has grown in size. 
  • Pain on the tongue. 
  • There will be a change in a person’s tone of voice. 
  • Difficulty in swallowing. 
  • The person may feel bloated or full. 
  • Ear pain may also be experienced. 

Sadly, the signs and symptoms do not show themselves until it grows, around this time, the cancer likely has already developed and made its way onto the lymph nodes of the neck. 

Causes and Risk Factors

The actual cause of tongue cancer is unknown.

However, smoking and alcohol consumption are strongly linked to causing this type of cancer. Another possible cause is poor oral hygiene. Other causes of this type of cancer also come from chronic irritation due to jagged teeth, dentures that do not fit well, and projecting fillings. 

If a person has any of the risk factors mentioned below, then they are prone to getting this type of cancer, however, this does not mean that it is a guarantee that they will have tongue cancer. 

  • Men who are included in the older age bracket are prone to getting tongue cancer. However, there are instances where younger men get diagnosed with this type of cancer as well. 
  • Smoking and alcohol consumption are also risk factors. If people do these often, then it is most likely that they may develop this type of cancer compared to people who do not smoke or drink. 
  • People who are diagnosed with HPV (human papillomavirus) may have an increased risk of getting this type of cancer. 
  • Diet is another risk factor because the lack of vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables will increase the chances of getting tongue cancer. 
  • Weak immune system 
  • Previous cancer
  • Genetic condition

Tongue Cancer Treatment and Prevention

The primary treatments for this type of cancer involve radiotherapy, surgery, chemotherapy, and any one of these can be combined or done individually. All these treatments are not necessary for every type of tongue cancer since the treatments depend on what stage and progression.

Since the causes and risk factors have been identified, the prevention of this type of cancer would be to avoid doing some of the activities included in said causes. 

  • Avoid smoking
  • Drink alcohol in moderation 
  • Book an appointment with your dentist regularly

Complications of Treatment

There may be complications that would start to emerge once oral treatment has commenced. Treatment for aggressive cancers (chemotherapy and radiation) will increase the likelihood of having the following complications:

  • Mucositis (inflammation of mucous membranes)
  • Infection 
  • Bleeding
  • Pain 
  • Dehydration 
  • Malnutrition (due to difficulty in swallowing)
  • Radiation therapy on the head and neck may cause injuries to the glands that produce saliva or damage the joints and muscles located on the jaw. 
  • Treatments may also cause a reduction of blood supply
  • Dental diseases may occur
  • Bone death may also occur

Key Takeaways

Tongue cancer may be common, but it can be prevented before it even develops. Preventing tongue cancer would ultimately be better than treating it since treatments lead to multiple complications that would cause discomfort for a person. 


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

John Paul Abrina, MD

Oncology · Davao Doctors Hospital

Written by Hello Doctor Medical Panel · Updated Jul 06, 2022

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