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Is the swelling in front of my ear a type of head and neck cancer?

Brett Miles, MD
Ear, Nose & Throat (Otolaryngology)

There are a variety of conditions that can cause swelling in front of your ear. These include benign conditions such as cysts, salivary gland conditions, lymph nodes, etc. and some conditions which are more serious such as cancer. The only way to determine the cause of the swelling is to have an examination by a physician and appropriate imaging studies (such as a computed tomography scan or MRI). A determination can then be made regarding the need for additional studies such as a biopsy or additional imaging.

A swelling in front of an ear is most likely caused by an enlarged parotid gland, which is the largest salivary gland. Parotid gland swelling may have several causes, including parotid gland stones (which block the tube leading saliva from the gland to the mouth), infection, diabetes, and tumors. Only 20-25% of tumors are cancerous, the rest are benign. Unlike benign tumors, parotid cancers can invade nerves in the gland and are therefore more likely to cause pain, numbness, or muscle weakness. They also tend to grow faster and have a less well-defined boundary than benign tumors. To determine if the swelling is a type of cancer, your doctor will probably perform a fine-needle aspiration biopsy to obtain cells that can be examined with a microscope.

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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.