Tongue Cancer: Signs and Symptoms

Tongue Cancer: Signs and Symptoms


Tongue cancer is a subtype of oral cancer that begins in the cells of your tongue. Oral cancer can affect several parts of your mouth, including the lips, inside of the mouth, and back of the throat.

Symptoms of oral cancer and tongue cancer often look similar, but symptoms of tongue cancer affect your tongue first before spreading to other areas of the mouth. These symptoms may include discolored patches, numbness, and pain.

Anyone can develop this type of cancer, but people assigned male at birth who also have a history of tobacco use have higher rates of developing tongue cancer. The incidence (number of cases) is growing in people assigned female at birth and in younger people. Drinking alcohol, having human papillomavirus (HPV), adopting poor nutrition habits, and living with obesity are other risk factors.

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The most common symptom of tongue cancer is a painful tongue. Pain often develops in just one spot—the top, side, or bottom of your tongue. As cancer cells spread, you’ll likely notice the pain becoming more severe and spreading to other areas of your tongue.

It’s also common to feel pain in other areas of your mouth, especially as the cancer metastasizes. As such, you might feel pain in your lips, gums, the inside lining of your mouth, the back of your throat, and ears.

Another common symptom of tongue cancer is a sore or patch that develops on your tongue. Generally, these sores or patches don’t heal on their own or rub off. The color can look different from person to person, but most people with tongue cancer will often report a red or white patch on their tongue.

These sores and patches usually form on the side but can develop on any part of your tongue. As the cancer spreads, sores can also develop in other mouth areas.

Sores and patches can cause additional symptoms. Sores can affect the function of your tongue, making it difficult for your tongue to work properly. People with patches that have spread to multiple areas of their tongue may experience symptoms like dysphagia (difficulty swallowing), dysarthria (difficulty speaking), and odynophagia (painful swallowing).

Tongue cancer can often cause a feeling of numbness that first develops on your tongue and can later spread to your whole mouth. Numbness is more likely to occur if you have sores or patches on your tongue. This symptom can also affect how well you can swallow food, the ability to taste, and your speaking capabilities.

Because tongue cancer is a form of oral cancer, symptoms of both cancers can look quite similar. While tongue cancer symptoms, especially in the early stages, will be limited to your tongue, other symptoms can develop as the cancer spreads. Without early treatment, you may experience additional cancer symptoms, including:

  • A lump on your lips, mouth, or cheeks
  • A sore throat
  • A feeling that something is stuck in your throat that does not go away
  • Trouble moving your jaw
  • A mass in your neck
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Bleeding in your mouth
  • Loosening of your teeth
  • Dentures that become uncomfortable or do not fit properly

It can be extremely worrisome to experience symptoms of cancer. However, many symptoms of tongue cancer can also occur due to noncancerous reasons. That said, if you have new symptoms, it’s a good idea to see your healthcare provider for a proper evaluation. They can help you understand the cause of your symptoms and offer treatment options.

Tongue cancer is a form of oral cancer that can cause symptoms like pain, sores, patches, and numbness on your tongue. These symptoms subsequently may also cause difficulty speaking or swallowing food.

Experiencing symptoms of cancer can be scary. However, seeking care from a healthcare provider early can help you understand the cause of your symptoms and get the necessary treatment.

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