Bump or Ulcer in the Mouth
One of the most common reasons for a patient to see an ENT doctor is in regards to a bump or an ulcer in the mouth... the main underlying concern being "Is it cancer?"
Although this webpage is not meant to be exhaustive in describing every single mass or lesion of the mouth under the sun, it does describe 90% of the time what most people have. Of course, this information is not meant to replace a physician visit and exam and you should see your doctor to ensure diagnostic accuracy and to receive proper treatment
There are two main flavors of ulcers... all benign and nothing to do with cancer.
The most common are aphthous ulcers which are relatively flat but extremely painful ulcers. There may or may not be a red rim around the white center. Most occur after trauma whether biting the area, hitting the area with a toothbrush, or getting it abraded from dental braces or dentures.
The second flavor of ulcer is due to the herpes virus. Generally these seemingly occur out of the blue without any specific trauma and initially starts out with many tiny pinpoint ulcers lined by red that may or may not join to create one big ulcer. These are even more painful than apthous ulcers... to the point that drooling occurs given the inability to even swallow spit due to the pain.
Treatment for both is basically the same. One can try over-the-counter orajel or saltwater rinses, but prescription medications help resolve these lesions more quickly. The main goto medication that makes the biggest difference is steroids, typically in liquid form that is rinsed and spit out. It can also be soaked into a cotton ball and placed over the ulcer for longer duration of contact. Oftentimes the steroid is made in combination with lidocaine, nystatin, and/or diphenhydramine; such concoctions are often called "Miracle Mouthwash" or "Magic Mouthwash" or some other quirky name. For herpetic ulcers, steroids may be given to be swallowed as well.
If aphthous ulcers and/or herpetic ulcers occur with regularity (every month or two), there are some predisposing conditions to check out. Such conditions include vitamin/mineral deficiency (zinc, magnesium, iron, vitamin B12, folate, etc), immunodeficiency (HIV, leukemia), hepatitis, Crohn's disease, allergic reaction, etc. Biopsy may also need to be considered... the trick being the ulcer needs to be present at time of biopsy before it disappears.
In the next category of "painless bumps," we can further divide these into 3 different types... all benign without any cancer potential. As the category title states, there is no pain associated with these bumps.
The most common bump seen in the ENT clinic is the mucocele (show to the right). These are most commonly found on the lower lip just underneath the mucosal lining are analogous to a skin blister. They are soft, fluctuate in size, and may range in color from pink to purple. Mucoceles can develop spontaneously but can also develop after biting the area. Treatment is pretty straightforward. It needs to be completely removed surgically. Less invasive methods can be tried with needle aspiration or making a large hole for it to drain out. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the time, it comes right back. Complete surgical removal offers the best chance of "cure."
The next common painless bump seen is a fibroma of some kind shown to the left. These bumps almost always occur after biting the area. They are semi-firm or rubbery to touch with smooth countours are range in color from whitish-grey to pink. The fibroma actually involves the lining of the mouth (it's not under the mucus lining like a mucocele). Treatment is to completely surgically excise it and is curative.
The final flavor of painless bump is a pyogenic granuloma (shown to the right). These bumps are fleshy in apearance with a smooth but irregular countoured surface. It almost can be described as a pink snail or worm popping up. The color is almost always some shade of red, but can also be the same color as the surronding mucosal lining.
Pyogenic granuloma, as with fibroma, usually occurs after some type of trauma to the area and is treated the same way with surgical excision. However, topical steroid application or even steroid injection to the area can be helpful and be tried prior to surgery.
A papilloma bump can be considered a "painless bump," but has been given its own special separate category due to one significant difference from the others... it DOES have a small but significant cancer potential. However, please note that a papilloma is NOT cancer just like actinic keratosis of the skin (sun-damaged skin) is not considered cancer. However, just like actinic keratosis of the skin can be considered "pre-cancer", papilloma should be considered in a similar way.
Papilloma is caused by the human papilloma virus, otherwise known as HPV. This is the same virus that is known to cause cervical cancer and the reason why women undergo pap smears. Fortunately, not all HPV strains have a high risk for causing cancer. At this time, there are over 150 different strains of HPV. Only 15 high-risk HPV types have been identified, including major culprits HPV types 16 and 18, which together cause about 70 percent of cervical cancers and is increasingly suspected of causing oral cancer as well. In fact, this virus has now surpassed smoking as the leading cause of oral cancer in people under 50 years of age. This elevated trend is felt to be due to oral sex becoming a more accepted mainstream practice.
In any case, papilloma of the mouth is a painless bump that can occur anywhere in the mouth. It can be found on the uvula, tonsil, palate, cheek, lip, etc. It has an irregular pitted surface like a strawberry or rasberry. It is typically pink to red in color though white can also occur. Treatment is surgical excision and is "curative." Curative is in quotes because although the mass is gone, it can recur in the same place or elsewhere given the virus itself is not "cured" and can trigger the papilloma growth again. The papilloma should be typed for HPV to determine if a high-risk HPV type is present. If so, the oral cavity should be examined regularly for recurrence and any suspicous lesions biopsied to minimize risk of oral cancer development.
In this last category of an oral bump, it is the dreaded cancer which is what most people are worried about. Unfortunately, cancer does not have a characteristic appearance. It can be smooth (lymphoma of the tonsil), ulcerated, fungating, raised, irregular, etc. There is no"typical" appearance or color. However, there are some rules of thumb where the concern for cancer increases, especially if the bump/lesion has more than a few of the following characteristics:
- It hurts
- Ulcer AND raised or depressed appearance (unlike aphthous ulcer which is flat)
- Consistently getting larger over time
- Lip or tongue paralysis
- Hard to open the mouth completely (trismus)
- The bump/lesion is very hard/firm to touch
- Bad smell present
- You smoke/drink
- You practice oral sex
If there's a concern, see your local ENT doctor!
There's a couple things that may occur if cancer concern is present, not in any particular order:
- A small biopsy
- CT scan
- Laryngoscopy to determine extent
- Sedated examination of the throat with more biopsies (aka Pan-Endoscopy)
- Chest X-ray
What exactly occurs depends on the location, size, and presence of neck masses. Treatment depends on what type of cancer it is. But Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC) is by far the most common cancer of the oral cavity by a long-shot. Lymphoma is perhaps the next most common followed by the rest which are rare: acinic cell caricinoma, adenocarcinoma, mucoepidermoid carcinoma, verrucous cell carcinoma, etc.
If cancer is present, there are some characteristics that make it more serious or not.
Early stage (good) cancer is charaterized as size being 2cm or smaller, no neck masses, and well differentiated in appearance under the microscope.
Late stage cancer (bad) cancer is characterized as being 4cm or larger, presence of neck masses, and undifferentiated in appearance under the microscope.
Obvious middle stage is something in between these two.
If you have any lumps or bumps in the mouth, please contact our office for an appointment!
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Any information provided on this website should not be considered medical advice or a substitute for a consultation with a physician. If you have a medical problem, contact your local physician for diagnosis and treatment. Advertisements present are clearly labelled and in no way support the website or influence the contents.
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