Regular checkups with your dentist help more than just your smile. They’re an important chance for him to check for signs of oral cancer.

Everyone should see a dentist at least once a year to keep their mouths healthy. But health professionals don’t always agree on how often people should get oral cancer screening tests. Some say that if you have a higher chance of getting the disease, it’s a good idea to get checked out. Things that make you more likely to get it include:

  • Using tobacco, including smoking, chewing dip, or using snuff
  • Regularly drinking a lot of alcohol
  • Having oral cancer in the past
  • Spending too much time in the sun, which raises your chances of getting cancer on your lips
  • Some types of human papillomavirus (HPV), which you can get during oral sex
  • Chewing betel quid

Ask your dentist if you need a screening test.

During a Screening Test
There are different levels to oral cancer screening, and your dentist is most likely to give you a basic exam that includes a thorough look at all the parts of your mouth, including:

  • Your lips, both outside and inside
  • Your gums
  • Your tongue, from all sides and underneath
  • The insides of your cheeks
  • The roof of your mouth
  • The back of your throat

If you wear dentures, you’ll have to take them out so he can check the tissue beneath them.

He might put one finger in your mouth under your tongue and couple of fingers on the skin under your chin and move them around to feel the tissue between them. Your dentist might also feel underneath your jaw.

The exam should take less than 5 minutes.

The goal is to look for lumps and spots and see if anything looks unusual about the spit that covers all the pink parts inside your mouth. If you ever notice any of these things yourself, give your dentist a call.

Your dentist may go a little more in-depth for your oral cancer screening test and have you rinse your mouth with a blue dye before the exam. Any unusual cells in your mouth absorb the dye so it’s easier to see them.

If There Are Signs of Cancer
If your dentist notices something unusual, you may need to have another appointment a few weeks later to see if anything has changed. He may also suggest that you have a biopsy, when he takes a small piece of tissue from an area that looks troublesome and sends it to a lab to test it for cancer cells. Your dentist might take the biopsy, or refer you to a doctor who can.

Keep in mind that not all spots or lumps your dentist finds turn out to be cancer. But if they do, catching the condition early means you may have more treatment options. So keep your regular appointments with your dentist so he can watch for signs of a problem.