In the United States, cancers of the oral cavity and oropharynx represent approximately three percent of all malignancies in men and two percent of all malignancies in women. The American Cancer Society estimates that 28,900 new cases of oral cancer will be diagnosed in 2002, and nearly 7,400 people will die from this disease. Over 90 percent of these tumors are squamous cell carcinomas, which arise from the oral mucosal lining. In spite of the ready accessibility of the oral cavity to direct examination, these malignancies still are often not detected until a late stage, and the survival rate for oral cancer has remained essentially unchanged over the past three decades. The purpose of this article is to review the clinical features of oral cancer and premalignant oral lesions, with an emphasis on early detection.