Tongue Cancer: What are the Symptoms?

Tongue cancer is a type of oral cavity cancer that occurs when cells divide out of control and form a growth or tumor on the tongue. Tongue cancer is less common than many other types of cancer. It is more prevalent in older adults and rare in children.

There are two parts of the tongue: the oral tongue and the base of the tongue. Cancer can develop in either part:

  • The oral tongue is the front two-thirds of your tongue, and cancers that develop in this part of the tongue come under a group of cancers called mouth (oral) cancer.
  • The base of the tongue is in the back third of the tongue. This part is near your throat (pharynx). Cancers that develop in this part are called oropharyngeal cancers.

What are the symptoms of tongue cancer?

One of the first signs of tongue cancer is a patch or sore on any sides of your tongue that doesn’t go away. The patch may be white, red or mix of red and white in color. The sore or ulcer may be in any shape and last longer than 2 weeks, even if the suspected cause of the sore, such as a sharp-edge tooth, has been removed. Sometimes the sore will bleed if you touch or bite it. Check with your doctors if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • A sore on the tongue that does not go away in two weeks
  • A lump or thickening on the tongue
  • A white or red patch on the tongue
  • Bleeding, pain, or numbness of the tongue
  • Change in voice
  • Trouble chewing or swallowing or moving the tongue
  • Swelling of jaw
  • Sore throat or feeling that something is caught in the throat

A dentist or dental hygienist should check for these symptoms during a regular dental exam. Lip and oral cavity cancers may not show any symptoms in some cases.

What are the risk factors for tongue cancer?

Potential risk factors for tongue cancer include tobacco and alcohol use as well as HPV infection. Adults aged 35 to 45 should be routinely screened for cancer symptoms and get a check-up if you detect a sore, lump or have difficulty swallowing after two weeks. Importantly, regular dentists’ visits can also help detect any abnormalities.

About the Medical Reviewer

Piamkamon Vacharotayangul, DDS, PhD

After graduating from Mahidol University with high honors, I joined the newly established faculty of dentistry at Srinakhariwirot University in 1997. I was selected to pursue a PhD and advanced clinical training abroad at UCSF in 1999. After graduation in 2006, I returned to Srinakharinwirot University to lead the Division of Oral Medicine for 8 years. I continued as a special instructor in oral medicine for Mahidol University as well as Srinakharinwirot University and Rangsit University until 2018, when I took on the translation of Atlas of Oral Diseases by Professor Isaac van der Waal from English into Thai. In 2020 I accepted the position of Associate Surgeon and Director of Advanced Graduation Education Program at Brigham and Women's Hospital Division of Oral Medicine and Dentistry.