Head & Neck Cancers: What to Look For and When to See a Doctor

September 1, 2023

Head and Neck Cancers is a broad term for a group of cancers that typically begin in the mouth, lips, throat, or voice box. Usually found in the squamous cells of the moist inner linings of the head and neck, these cancers are also called squamous cell carcinomas. In addition, these cancers can also start in the sinuses, salivary glands, and the muscles or nerves in the head and neck. It is worth noting that brain, esophagus, eye, and thyroid cancer, as well as skin cancer of the head and neck, are not typically considered head and neck cancer.

Cancers in the head and neck account for about 4 percent of all cancers in the United States, with an estimated 68,000 people impacted in 2021. Head and neck cancers are twice as common in men than women and more often diagnosed in people over 50. This group of cancers can be challenging to diagnose because the symptoms are usually mild and can mimic other conditions. That’s why it’s important to know what to look for.

Common Signs & Symptoms of Head & Neck Cancers

Head and neck cancer symptoms can vary depending on where the cancer begins. However, there are some general symptoms and signs to be aware of. The most common symptom is a sore throat that does not improve after a few days. Other symptoms include:

Difficulty Moving Jaw
When a head and neck tumor impacts the bones, muscles, or nerves of the jaw, it can be hard to chew or open your mouth. On average, people can open their mouth to about the width of three fingers horizontally. Trouble opening your mouth could be a sign of trismus, which could be a sign of cancer or other serious health problems.

Difficulty Swallowing
If you have pain or a burning sensation when chewing or swallowing, feel like food is stuck in your throat, or feel like food or liquid is going into your windpipe, this could be a sign of head and neck cancer.

Ear Pain or Hearing Loss
Ringing in the ears or ear pain are common symptoms of throat cancer.

Lump in Neck, Jaw or Mouth
Lumps can form in the jaw or mouth, as well as in the lips. A lump in the neck could be attributed to thyroid cancer or caused by a swollen lymph node. Enlarged lymph nodes can also be a common symptom.

Mouth Ulcer
An ulcer is a broken area of skin that will not heal. This can be a symptom of mouth cancer.

Neck Pain
While thyroid cancer is not considered a head and neck cancer, pain that won’t go away in the neck could be a sign of either head and neck cancer or thyroid cancer.

Pain or Weakness in the Face
If you experience pain, discomfort, or weakness in that face that does not go away after a short period could be a symptom of salivary gland cancer and mouth cancer.

Red or White Patches in the Mouth or Throat
White patches (leukoplakia) or red patches (erythroplakia) can indicate cancer or precancer. The patches are not cancer, but if left untreated, they may lead to cancer. Oral thrush, a fungal infection, can also cause red and white patches.

Speech Issues
The voice box is a common area impacted by head and neck cancer. If your voice sounds different, such as quieter, husky, like you have a cold, slurring words, or having trouble pronouncing certain sounds could be a sign that something is wrong.

Trouble Breathing
Nasal congestion is a common symptom of head and neck cancer, especially sinus cancer, as well as nosebleeds. Throat cancer can also impact breathing.

Weight Loss
A common symptom of various cancers, including head and neck cancer is weight loss.

Other symptoms can include unusual bleeding or numbness in the mouth or tongue, loosening of teeth, dentures that no longer fit, extremely bad breath, double vision, blood in the saliva or phlegm, and fatigue. While many of these symptoms can be attributed to less severe conditions, keep track of how long and how often you are experiencing the symptoms.

When to See a Doctor About Head & Neck Cancer

If you are experiencing head and neck cancer symptoms or have any concerns, schedule an appointment with your doctor. Keeping track of the progression of your symptoms will help your doctor with testing and diagnosis.

In addition to common signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer, there are risk factors that can increase the chances of developing cancer, including:

Tobacco and Alcohol Use. Tobacco use is the most common cause of head and neck cancers at approximately 70 to 80 percent.

HPV. Head and neck cancers associated with human papillomavirus (HPV) infection are rising, especially among young adults.

Ancestry. Those of Asian descent, especially Chinese ancestry, have an increased risk for nasopharyngeal cancer.

Exposure. Prolonged exposure to asbestos, pesticides, wood dust, paint fumes, etc., as well as radiation, are linked to head and neck cancer.

Other risk factors include your health history, diet, dental hygiene, and family history.

Whether or not you experience symptoms, your doctor and dentist perform an exam screening for head and neck cancer. Since common locations for head and neck cancer are in the mouth, tongue, and throat, your doctor or dentist uses a mirror and small light to examine these areas for abnormalities. If they spot areas of concern, they may recommend additional testing like imaging, labs, an endoscopy, or a biopsy to determine what is happening.

Knowing the signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer makes you your strongest advocate for getting screened and tested. While these symptoms can be attributed to less serious conditions, it is better to speak with your doctor about your concerns to increase your chances of early detection. Additionally, many areas now offer free screenings. At Partners in Care, we provide free head and neck cancer screenings to the public at our Head & Neck 5K run and 2-mile walk events.