Detecting Oral Cancer in its Early Stages: The Dental Assistant Guide

Dental assistant certification

By the end of 2015, an estimated total of nearly 5,000 Canadian men and women will be diagnosed with oral cancer, and of those, approximately 1,200 cases will be fatal. Luckily, early detection is possible and likely for patients who visit the dentist’s office on a regular basis.

While updating or obtaining new medical and dental histories, or by just chatting with patients while waiting for the dentist in the treatment room, dental assistants can obtain valuable information to help them recognize the signs and symptoms of early stage oral cancer.

Dental assistants are valuable members of the dental care team. They can play a key role in helping the dentist detect oral cancer in its early stages, offering patients an opportunity to get the right treatment before the disease can progress.

Planning to become a dental assistant? Read on to learn about some of the leading risk factors, and the changes in the mouth you should watch for to detect the early stages of oral cancer.

Oral Cancer Risk Factors: What Dental Assistants Should Watch For

Professionals in dental assistant careers know that anyone can get oral cancer, but that certain factors can increase the likelihood of developing the disease. Gender is one example, with statistics showing that men are twice as likely to develop oral cancer as women.A� Also, most cases of the disease occur in patients over the age of 55. Other major risk factors include:

  • Tobacco and Alcohol Use: Most cases of oral cancer are linked to cigarette smoking and heavy alcohol use. Using the two together poses an even higher risk.
  • HPV: Infection with the human papillomavirus has been linked to several types of cancer including oral cancer.
  • Diet: A diet low in vitamins found in fruits and vegetables may contribute to the development of oral cancer.

Other factors that have raised concern include some mouthwash ingredients, or improperly fitted dentures. Although they’ve raised discussion, these potential contributors haven’t yet been proven through scientific study.

How Certified Dental Assistants can Identify Early Signs of Oral Cancer

One of the most common early signs of oral cancer is lesions in the mouth that last longer than usual. Two types of lesions that could be a warning sign are called leukoplakia (white lesions) and erythroplakia (red lesions).

Erythroplakia lesions are less common, but have a much higher risk of becoming cancerous. When youa��re examining patients as a certified dental assistant, and discover red or white lesions that have persisted for more than two weeks, you should alert the dentist, who may advise the patient to go for a biopsy to receive a diagnosis.

Other signs of early-stage oral cancer that patients might report include: a lump or thickening in the mouth’s soft tissues, feeling that they have something caught in their throat, difficulty chewing or swallowing, ear pain, or difficulty moving the jaw or tongue.

Any of these symptoms could point to other oral conditions, of course. But if a patient is experiencing a combination of any of these for more than 2 weeks, your best bet would be to recommend that they go for a thorough clinical exam.

Are you looking for cutting-edge training that will prepare you for the best dental assistant career opportunities?

Visit the Canadian Academy of Dental Hygiene to learn more about our program, or to speak with an expert advisor.

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