A charity is pushing for dentists to play a greater role in helping to fight oral cancer
Dentists are being urged to investigate their patients' personal lives to help curb rising rates of oral cancer.
A leading charity wants to see dentists take a more active role in fighting the disease, which is claiming increasing numbers of lives in the UK. This could mean practitioners asking patients about lifestyle risk factors such as smoking, drinking and sexual behaviour.
"We would like them to be more aware of the risk factors so that they ask the right questions," said Hazel Nunn, head of health evidence and information at Cancer Research UK.
"Dentists should be asking their patients if they smoke or drink heavily. That doesn't necessarily mean following up with a lecture, but they should be aware. If a dentist is looking at someone's teeth and knows this person smokes 50 cigarettes a day and drinks well above the recommended amount, he might look that extra bit more carefully."
Oral cancer affects the lips, tongue, cheek lining, gums, palate and floor of the mouth.
By 2030 it is predicted that 9,200 cases of the disease will be diagnosed each year in the UK, compared with 6,240 in 2009 and 3,030 in 1984. Death rates are also expected to rise by around 22% over the next two decades.
The reason for the trend is unclear but thought to be linked to lifestyle. Smoking and drinking are two major risk factors for oral cancer, as is the human papilloma virus (HPV) which can infect the mouth as a result of oral sex.
While fewer people are smoking than they used to, excess alcohol consumption and binge drinking is a growing problem, especially among the young. There is also evidence that people who have more sexual partners are at greater risk of oral cancer.
Most oral cancers produce a type of tumour called squamous cell carcinoma that spreads quickly. Early symptoms include sores, lumps or ulcers in the mouth which can easily be dismissed as harmless.
Cancer Research UK, the British Society for Oral Medicine, and the British Association for the Study of Community Dentistry are jointly lobbying the dental profession to take mouth cancer more seriously. They are pressing the British General Dental Council to make the early detection and prevention of oral cancer a compulsory part of dentists' ongoing training.