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Head and Neck Cancer

Head and Neck Cancer Symptoms and Risks

Head and neck cancers include a wide range of tumors that can develop in several areas of the head and neck. These tumors account for up to 5% of all cancer diagnoses in the United States.

Most head and neck cancers are squamous cell carcinomas that begin in the cells that line the moist, mucosal surfaces. Head and neck cancers are nearly twice as common in men as they are in women, and occur more frequently in people over age 50. However, head and neck cancers affect all ages. Doctors see head and neck cancer more often in younger people when the human papillomavirus is present.

Head and neck cancer symptoms

Early detection is key to diagnosing and treating head and neck cancers. General head and neck cancer symptoms may include:

  • Lump in your neck
  • Ear, throat or neck pain
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Changes in your voice, especially unexplained hoarseness
  • Changes in your vision
  • Mouth sores
  • Poorly fitting dentures

Symptoms can also vary depending on the specific cancer diagnosis.

    • A change or hoarseness in the voice
    • A lump in the neck or throat
    • A sore throat or cough that does not go away
    • Chronic cough
    • Ear pain
    • Trouble or pain when swallowing
    • A lump or thickening on the lips or gums or in the mouth
    • A sore on the lip or in the mouth that does not heal
    • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsils or lining of the mouth
    • Bleeding, pain or numbness in the lip or mouth
    • Change in voice
    • Loose teeth or dentures that no longer fit well
    • Sore throat or feeling that something is caught in the throat
    • Swelling of the jaw
    • Trouble chewing, swallowing or moving the tongue or jaw
    • A lump (usually painless) in the area of the ear, cheek, jaw, lip or inside the mouth
    • Fluid draining from the ear
    • Numbness or weakness in the face
    • Pain in the face that does not go away
    • Trouble swallowing or opening the mouth widely
    • A lump on the face or roof of the mouth
    • A lump or sore inside the nose that does not heal
    • A runny nose
    • Blocked sinuses or sinus pressure that does not clear
    • Headaches or pain in the sinus areas
    • Nosebleeds
    • Numbness or tingling in the face
    • Pain in the upper teeth, loose teeth or dentures that no longer fit well
    • Pain or pressure in the ear
    • Swelling or other trouble with the eyes, such as double vision or the eyes pointing in different directions
    • A change in voice
    • A lump in the neck
    • A sore throat that does not go away
    • Ear pain
    • Headache
    • Painful or difficulty swallowing
If any of these symptoms lasts longer than 2 weeks, alert your physician. While these are not conclusive indicators of cancer, they may point to the need for additional diagnosis and screening.

Head and neck cancer risk factors

Approximately 75% of head and neck cancers are related to alcohol and/or tobacco use. HPV infection is also often a factor, particularly in cancers involving the throat and tonsils. Making certain lifestyle changes can significantly lower your risk of developing head and neck cancer:

  • Don’t use tobacco (especially smokeless tobacco)
  • Stop or limit alcohol use
  • Wear a protective face mask if you are at risk for potential occupational exposure
  • Practice safe sex

The most common risk factors for head and neck cancers are:

  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Genetics
  • HPV infection
  • Exposure to occupational inhalants
  • Poor diet (head and neck cancer is higher in those who eat few fruits and vegetables)
  • Reflux disease

Different types of head and neck cancer can carry specific risks.

Mouth cancer risks

  • Being exposed to sunlight
  • HPV infection
  • Being male
  • Being exposed to certain substances at work
  • Older age
  • Treatment with radiation therapy to the head and neck

Risks for getting cancer of the nose or sinuses

  • Being exposed to certain workplace chemicals or dust, such as those found in the following jobs:
    • Flour mill or bakery work
    • Furniture-making/textile fibers
    • Leather tanning
    • Metal-plating/nickel refining
    • Sawmill work
    • Shoemaking
    • Woodworking (carpentry)
  • Being male and older than 40

Throat cancer risks

  • Eating a diet without enough nutrients
  • Having a throat disorder called Plummer-Vinson syndrome
  • Infection with Epstein-Barr virus
  • Prolonged exposure to asbestos
  • HPV infection


Head and neck cancer patient Walter Register.

Undiagnosed HPV leads to trouble

Walter “Cash” Register is not someone who gets sick often. That’s why learning he had stage 4 cancer at the base of his tongue was a shock.

Read Cash's Story

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Your journey to health starts here. Call 913-588-1227 or request an appointment at The University of Kansas Cancer Center.

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