What Are the Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancer?

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

Head and neck cancer is the name used to refer to a group of cancers that occur in the mouth, the throat, the voice box, the paranasal sinuses, inside the nasal cavity, or in the salivary glands. These cancers make up about 4 percent of all cancers in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute, and they are on the rise in younger men. The following are some of the most common signs and symptoms of these cancers.

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Swelling or a Sore That Does Not Heal

Do you have swelling or a sore that won’t heal in a part of your head or neck? This is the most common symptom of head and neck cancer, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). But remember: This symptom, and other potential symptoms, may indicate conditions other than head and neck cancer as well.

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A Lump in the Neck

Often, the first sign people with these cancers notice is a lump, bump, or mass in the neck that may not cause any pain, according to ASCO. These kinds of lumps may indicate that a cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in your neck. If the lump doesn’t go away within two weeks, it’s time to see your health care provider to rule out the possibility of cancer. They may need to do a biopsy or CT scan.

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Red or White Patches in Your Mouth

Red or white patches in your mouth could be a sign of oral cancer, according to ASCO. These areas may not be painful at first, and they can show up anywhere in your mouth — including the roof and floor of your mouth or in the gum tissue, according to the American Dental Association. Because these patches can be hard to spot on your own, it’s important to see your dentist for regular checkups; dentists are trained to spot patches and other changes in the mouth that could indicate cancer.

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Changes in Areas With Frequent Tobacco Contact

If you are a smoker or use chewing tobacco, you are at an increased risk for head and neck cancer. Often, head and neck cancer begins in the area where these substances have the most frequent contact, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS). If you notice a new sore or a change in color in the place where you usually hold your chewing tobacco in your mouth, or on your lip where a cigarette often sits, see a doctor right away.

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Pain or difficulty chewing or swallowing

If you’re having trouble chewing or swallowing, it may be a sign of throat cancer, according to the AAO-HNS. For example, you may find that foods feel like they get stuck at a certain point. If this problem doesn’t go away, make sure to see your doctor. They can determine the cause of the problem through an x-ray called a barium swallow x-ray or by using a scope (esophagoscopy).

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A Change in Your Voice

Is your voice hoarse? Maybe it just sounds different than normal? These could be signs of cancer of the voice box, according to the AAO-HNS. Fortunately, there are many other causes of voice changes that are not cancer. But if these changes don’t go away after two weeks, it’s time to check in with a doctor to make sure your voice box is healthy.

Doctor examining the inside of a patient's mouth.
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Bleeding in Your Mouth

A sore or swollen area in your mouth that bleeds should be cause for concern. Additionally, tumors in the mouth, nose, or throat could cause blood to show up in your saliva or phlegm, according to the AAO-HNS. Bleeding like this may indicate a cancer that is further along. See your doctor or dentist right away; they can help you figure out whether you need to have a tissue sample taken of the area to evaluate it for cancer.

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A Persistent Earache or Sore Throat

Do you have an achy ear or raw throat that just doesn’t seem to go away? These may be signs of throat cancer, especially if you also have other symptoms, like a change in your voice, lump in your neck, or problems swallowing, according to the AAO-HNS. While an earache or sore throat also could just be signs of less serious infections, it's best to have these issues evaluated, especially if they are persistent.

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Sometimes, There are No Signs

In some cases, according to ASCO, people with head and neck cancer don’t have any of these symptoms. Unfortunately, some cases of head and neck cancer go undetected until they have already spread. That’s why it’s important to see your doctor regularly for checkups. A health care provider may be able to catch things before you notice anything is wrong.

Doctor examining woman with a painful neck.
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When in Doubt, See Your Doctor

If you are concerned about symptoms in your head and neck, it’s always best to seek out a health care professional. Your doctor can assess any changes and potentially run tests to rule out any serious issues, such as head and neck cancer. Remember: Some of these symptoms can also be symptoms of other health issues, many of which are not cancer. Talking with your doctor can help you diagnose problems and begin treating them right away, if necessary.

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at WTOP.com.