What are the symptoms of head and neck cancer?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

Although the symptoms vary depending on the location of the head and neck cancer, one of the most common symptoms is a lump or sore, which may or may not be painful. Other possible symptoms include bleeding in the mouth or nose, headaches, numbness or muscle weakness in the face, bad breath, voice changes and difficulty with swallowing or breathing. Weight loss may occur because of pain or difficulty with swallowing. All of these symptoms can be caused by other disorders, but symptoms that last for more that two to three weeks are more likely to be due to cancer.

Oral, head and neck cancer refers to a variety of cancers that develop in the head and neck region, such as the oral cavity (mouth), the pharynx (throat), paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity, the larynx (voice box), thyroid and salivary glands, the skin of the face and neck, and the lymph nodes in the neck.

Common symptoms of oral, head and neck cancer include: red or white patch in the mouth that lasts more than two weeks, change in voice or hoarseness that lasts more than two weeks, sore throat that does not subside, pain or swelling in the mouth or neck that does not subside, a lump in the neck.

Later symptoms of oral, head and neck cancer include: ear pain, difficulty speaking or swallowing, difficulty breathing.

Symptoms of several head and neck cancer sites include a lump or sore that does not heal, a sore throat that does not go away, difficulty swallowing and a change or hoarseness in the voice.

Other symptoms may include the following:

Oral cavity: A white or red patch on the gums, tongue or lining of the mouth; a swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable; and unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth.

Nasal cavity and sinuses: Sinuses that are blocked and do not clear, chronic sinus infections that do not respond to treatment with antibiotics, bleeding through the nose, frequent headaches, swelling or other trouble with the eyes, pain in the upper teeth or problems with dentures.

Salivary glands: Swelling under the chin or around the jawbone; numbness or paralysis of the muscles in the face; or pain that does not go away in the face, chin or neck.

Oropharynx and hypopharynx: Ear pain.

Nasopharynx: Trouble breathing or speaking, frequent headaches, pain or ringing in the ears or trouble hearing.

Larynx: Pain when swallowing, or ear pain.

Metastatic squamous neck cancer: Pain in the neck or throat that does not go away.

These symptoms may be caused by cancer or by other, less serious conditions. It is important to check with a doctor or dentist about any of these symptoms.

This answer is based on source information from the National Cancer Institute.

Dr. Hillel D. Ephros, DMD
Oral & Maxillofacial Surgeon

Some common signs (what you see) and symptoms (what you feel) of head and neck cancers include color and texture changes of the mouth lining tissue, persistent sores with bleeding or crusting, swellings or lumps of the face or neck, mouth or ear pain, numbness, voice changes, persistent cough or sore throat, and difficulty or pain when swallowing. Many of these are not specific symptoms, meaning that cancer is only one of a number of conditions that could make you feel these things. The most important point is that head and neck cancers often produce no symptoms at all, especially in their early stages when they are more easily and successfully treated. Early detection is most likely when you or your doctor sees the first signs of head and neck cancer before you have any symptoms.

The warning signs for head and neck cancer are:

  • a non-healing sore in the mouth or throat
  • persistent throat pain, especially on just one side
  • persistent ear pain without ear infection
  • difficulty swallowing or speaking
  • hoarseness
  • persistent nosebleeds
  • weight loss in combination with some of the above symptoms
  • persistent foul odor in mouth with some of the above symptoms

Symptoms vary with head and neck cancer, primarily because there are different types of the disease. Some of the most common warning signs of head and neck cancer include:

  • a persistent and unexplained lump or sore in the mouth, nose or neck
  • a persistent sore throat
  • difficulty swallowing
  • changes in your voice, including hoarseness

If you develop these or other unexplained symptoms in your head or neck, talk to your doctor immediately.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.