Can Swollen Gums Be A Sign Of Cancer?

Swollen gums, canker sores, and gum irritation can occur for many reasons. In most cases, these issues can be resolved by maintaining good oral hygiene and limiting sources of inflammation. In more serious cases, however, swollen gums may be a symptom of oral cancer. In this article, we will discuss the link between swollen gums and oral cancer and help clarify when gum irritation might be a sign of a more serious issue.
Faith Wershba

Faith Wershba

Postgraduate researcher at the University of Cambridge.

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If you’ve visited your dentist recently, chances are they’ve reminded you about the importance of maintaining healthy gums. The gums provide an essential barrier between oral bacteria and the bloodstream and serve as the foundation for strong teeth [1].

Unfortunately, the gum tissue is sensitive and vulnerable to irritation and inflammation. Swollen gums, formally termed “gingival swelling,” are the main symptom of gingivitis (gum disease), which is a common oral health issue. Gingival swelling may result in irritated, sensitive, or painful gums which bleed more easily when brushing or flossing your teeth [2]. Such a condition is not only unpleasant, but may lead to loose teeth and susceptibility to infection by oral bacteria [2]. Understanding the causes of swollen gums can allow one to take effective preventative measures against gingivitis and maintain good oral health.

Common causes of swollen gums

What causes swollen gums?

Swollen gums may occur for several reasons, including:

  • Gingivitis: the most common cause of gingival swelling is gingivitis, or gum disease. Gingivitis is caused by poor oral hygiene and a build-up of plaque on the gum line and teeth [2]. If plaque remains on the teeth for more than a few days, it becomes tartar, a hardened form of plaque that can't be removed with flossing and brushing alone. Tartar provides a breeding ground for oral bacteria, which feed off of the sugars and minerals in the deposits [3]. This can lead to tooth decay, inflammation, and gum disease.
  • Periodontitis: periodontitis occurs due to inflammation of the periodontium, a type of soft tissue which contains the gingiva as well as the bones responsible for keeping teeth firmly anchored [4]. Periodontitis often results from unresolved gingivitis and is a more severe form of gum disease.
  • Hormonal changes: changes in hormones such as estrogen and progesterone can impact blood flow to the gums, leading to swelling, redness, or bleeding. High estrogen levels, which occur during female puberty, pregnancy, and certain phases of the menstrual cycle, increase blood flow to the gingiva and therefore may cause swelling and increased bleeding [5].
  • Medications: Certain medications such as Amlodipine, a calcium channel blocker used for hypertension, can cause severe gingival swelling and enlargement [6].

Swollen gums and cancer

It's important to note that there are many other more common causes of gingival swelling. However, swollen gums can potentially be a sign of cancer.

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Faith Wershba

Faith Wershba

Faith obtained her Honour’s Bachelor Degree in Human Biology, Immunology and History & Philosophy of Science at the University of Toronto. Currently, she is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Cambridge, focusing on the philosophy of medicine, science, biomedical research methods, and bioethics.