Oral Pathology FAQ

Oral Pathology Frequently Asked Questions

What is oral pathology?child having a cotton swab placed in mouth

Oral Pathology is a specialized discipline within dentistry and oral surgery focusing on identifying, treating, and managing diseases of the mouth and jaw. Oral pathology looks into the causes, symptoms, and effects of oral diseases. This includes any disorders that affect the teeth, jawbone, gums, joints, skin, and mouth muscles.


Our oral surgeons use various tools to diagnose oral pathologies, including clinical, microscopic, and radiographic exams. Early diagnosis of oral diseases, including oral cancers, is essential to successful treatment.


Why is oral pathology important?

It is difficult to see the mouth’s interior, and most people are unaware of the early signs of oral cancer and other diseases affecting the mouth. Regular oral cancer screenings and at-home inspection of the inside of the mouth ensure serious oral health issues are caught early. The earlier oral cancer is identified, the easier it is to treat and the higher the success rate.


Cancer is not the only illness that can affect the mouth, cheeks, or gums. Some symptoms may indicate other issues that can be effectively treated with appropriate medications. If you wait too long, treatment is more difficult, and the disease can advance to permanent damage to the teeth, gums, or mouth. Left untreated, oral diseases may spread infection to other parts of the body.


What are the most common oral diseases?

Although oral cancer is the most common oral disease we check for, there are several oral health issues we check for during an oral pathology exam, including:


Herpes Simplex 1

More commonly known as cold sores or fever blisters, Herpes Simplex 1 is a form of oral herpes that is not dangerous. Most sores go away on their own, but they can last for weeks and cause a burning, tingling sensation. Antivirals can minimize symptoms but not cure the condition. About half of all Americans have herpes simplex 1.



Candidiasis, or thrush, is a fungal overgrowth on the lining of the mouth, tongue, and cheeks. Thrush causes white patches inside the mouth, red bumps, and temporary loss of taste. Babies sometimes develop thrush, but you can get it at any age. It is easily treated with an antifungal agent.


Black Hairy Tongue

A fuzzy, black tongue sounds and looks scary but is not dangerous and easily treatable. The black “hairs” are actually an overabundance of dead skin cells on the tongue’s papillae. Black Hairy Tongue can lead to bad breath and stimulate your gag reflex. Good oral hygiene, including brushing the tongue, can eliminate the problem.


Oral Cancer

Oral cancer usually appears as whitish or red patches on the inside of the cheeks, gums, or tongue. Diagnosed early, it is highly treatable. If discovered in its later stages, the mortality rate for oral cancer increases sharply, making early oral pathology screenings crucial. The main causes of oral cancer include Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), smoking, and excessive alcohol consumption.


How serious is oral cancer?

It depends on how advanced oral cancer is when discovered, the type of oral cancer, and where it is located. If diagnosed early, treatment and recovery can be complete. However, late-stage oral cancer has a survival rate of 43% at five years, reinforcing the importance of regular screening.


Am I at risk of getting oral cancer?

Anyone can develop oral cancer, but there are certain habits and conditions that raise your risk of developing it. Any of the following increases the likelihood of cancer:


  • You have the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)
  • You smoke or use smokeless tobacco
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • The black population is twice as likely to develop oral cancer as the white population.
  • Men are twice as likely to get oral cancer as women
  • Overexposure to sunlight or UV light (especially lip cancer)
  • Excess body weight


If you have one or more of the above risk factors, be sure to see your dentist for an oral pathology screening twice a year.


How often should I have an oral cancer screening?

Your dentist should perform an oral cancer screening at your twice-yearly checkup. At that time, they will also check for other oral diseases. Any time you develop a lump or sore in your mouth, contact your dentist and have it checked.


What are some signs I need an oral pathology exam?

Any of the following symptoms may indicate oral pathology and require a complete oral pathology screening:


  • Bumps or lumps in the mouth or on the lips
  • Sores that don’t heal
  • Oral infections (swelling, redness, pain)
  • Unexplained bleeding of the gums, tongue, or lips
  • Bad breath or a bad taste in the mouth that doesn’t go away
  • Patches of red or white in the mouth