The average American may be familiar with lung, breast, and skin cancer, but fewer people are aware of their risk of head and neck cancers. These lesser known types of cancer can affect the mouth, throat, voice box, or salivary glands, as well as the nasal cavity or sinuses. While somewhat uncommon, they tend to carry a bleak prognosis, in part because they’re rarely discussed—and frequently discovered when they’re too advanced to treat.
The five-year survival rate following a diagnosis of sinus or nasal cavity cancer is particularly low, hovering at just 58 percent. However, if you catch it early, that rate can jump to 84 percent, according to the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO). As is the case with other cancers, early intervention is the key to recovery and preserving patients’ quality of life.
That’s exactly why it’s so essential to know what to look out for when it comes to cancer of the nose and sinuses. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there’s one symptom you may experience in your teeth that can tip you off to a serious problem. Read on to find out which dental symptom to look out for, and when to call the doctor if you notice it.
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Pain in the upper teeth can indicate paranasal sinus or nasal cavity cancer.
As the CDC warns, pain in the upper teeth—as well as loose teeth or dentures that no longer fit well—may indicate paranasal sinus or nasal cavity cancer. These conditions affect roughly 2,000 Americans annually, typically taking the form of squamous cell carcinomas. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) this form of cancer begins by infecting “the thin, flat cells lining the inside of the paranasal sinuses and the nasal cavity,” but can spread to other parts of the body.
The Mayo Clinic cautions that while nasal and sinus cancers are somewhat rare, you may be at higher risk for this type of cancer due to environmental factors. These include whether or not you smoke, are exposed to high rates of air pollution, are infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV), or have a job that exposes you to airborne chemicals or irritants.
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These same symptoms may merely indicate a sinus infection.
While this type of upper tooth pain be a sign of cancer, experts from the Mayo Clinic say that it may also suggest a less serious sinus problem: a sinus infection.
“Pain in the upper back teeth is a fairly common symptom with sinus conditions,” writes Alan B. Carr, DDS, a dental expert with the Mayo Clinic. “The sinuses are pairs of empty spaces in your skull connected to the nasal cavity. If you have sinusitis, the tissues in those spaces become inflamed, often causing pain,” he explains.
Carr adds that the upper back teeth are typically affected because of their proximity to the sinus cavity. Consequently, “damage to or infection in a tooth may lead to persistent (chronic) sinusitis,” he says.
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Here’s how to distinguish between the two.
Knowing the other telltale symptoms of sinus and nasal cavity cancer may help you distinguish between those conditions and a less serious sinus infection. Doctors say that when cancer is the cause, you may also notice nosebleeds, lumps or sores inside the nose that do not heal, numbness or tingling in the face, blocked sinuses or sinus pressure, pain or pressure in the ear, and vision problems.
According to Health Central, you should be especially proactive in seeking medical attention if you notice that your symptoms occur on only one side of the sinus or nasal cavity, or on one side of your teeth. “The head and neck are what’s known as paired systems—their construction is symmetrical, or the same on both the left and the right. So persistent congestion on only one side of the nose, for instance, is cause for concern,” their expert panel writes.
As a first step toward diagnosis, consult your dentist.
If you’re experiencing tooth pain of any kind, your first step should be to book an initial consultation with a dentist, Carr says. “He or she will look for possible dental causes for the toothache, such as gum disease, cavities or other infections,” the dental expert adds.
However, if your dentist rules out dental decay, injury, or infections as the root cause, it’s time to call your general practitioner, Carr says. Your doctor “will consider whether a sinus condition or another medical problem is causing pain,” and may refer you to an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist for further screening.
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