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The information on this page was reviewed and approved by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on April 2, 2021.

About head and neck cancer

Head and neck cancers, including mouth cancers, account for about 4 percent of all cancers in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute. An estimated 65,630 people are expected to be diagnosed with head and neck cancers in 2021. Fortunately, the number of people with head and neck cancer and the mortality associated with the disease have been decreasing over the past 20 years.

Head and neck cancers may develop in the mouth, throat, nose, salivary glands and other areas of the head and neck. Head and neck tumors and treatment-related side effects may impair a patient’s ability to eat, swallow and breathe.

What causes head and neck cancer?

Smoking presents the greatest risk for developing head and neck cancer. Secondhand smoke may also increase the risk. Chewing tobacco has been linked to oral cavity cancer.

About 85 percent of head and neck diagnoses are connected to tobacco use. The combined use of tobacco and alcohol accounts for at least 75 percent of head and neck cancers.

People infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV) are at higher risk for some throat and mouth cancers. HPV has been on the rise in recent years, especially among people in their 40s and 50s.

Besides HPV infection and tobacco and alcohol use, risk factors for head and neck cancer may include:

  • Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)
  • Fanconi anemia or dyskeratosis congenita
  • Sun exposure
  • Radiation therapy, particularly to the head and neck region
  • Poor nutrition and vitamin deficiencies
  • Vaping

Who gets head and neck cancer?

Men are two to three times more likely than women to develop head and neck cancer. These cancers are more common in people over the age of 50.

Head and neck cancer types

Most head and neck cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, forming in the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose and throat. These squamous cell cancers can spread to other parts of the body, including the lymph nodes and lungs.

Types of head and neck cancer include:

  • Laryngeal cancer, a type of throat cancer affecting the larynx (sometimes called the voice box)
  • Nasopharyngeal cancer, which develops in the nasopharynx, the upper part of the throat behind the nose
  • Hypopharyngeal cancer, which develops in the hypopharynx, the lower part of the throat (sometimes called the gullet)
  • Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer, which forms behind the nose
  • Salivary gland cancer, which is found in the saliva-producing glands near the jawbone
  • Oral cancers, which begin in the mouth
  • Oropharyngeal cancer, which develops in the oropharynx, the part of the throat behind the mouth
  • Tonsil cancer

Head and neck cancer symptoms

Symptoms of head and neck cancer depend on the area where the cancer develops and how it spreads.

For example, tumors in the larynx or pharynx may appear as a lump in the throat. Cancer cells in the mouth may cause sores in the mouth or swelling of the jaw.

Some common symptoms for cancers of the head and neck include:

  • A lump in the nose, neck or throat, with or without pain
  • A persistent sore throat
  • Trouble swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Frequent coughing
  • Change in voice or hoarseness
  • Ear pain or trouble hearing
  • Headaches
  • A red or white patch in the mouth
  • Bad breath that's unexplained by hygiene
  • Nasal obstruction or persistent congestion
  • Frequent nose bleeds or unusual discharge
  • Trouble breathing

Other symptoms are similar to those for less serious conditions, such as the common cold. Changes in voice, headaches, sore throat or a cough may be symptoms of throat cancer. Pain or ringing in the ears may also accompany certain head and neck cancers.

Diagnosing head and neck cancer

The cancer experts at CTCA® use the following tools and procedures to arrive at a head and neck cancer diagnosis:

  • Indirect pharyngoscopy and laryngoscopy
  • Endoscopy
  • Panendoscopy
  • Biopsy, either incisional biopsy or fine needle aspiration (FNA)
  • X-ray
  • Barium swallow, also called an upper Gi series
  • CT scan
  • MRI
  • PET scan

Head and neck cancer treatments

Treatment options for patients with this type of cancer may include:

  • Head and neck surgery
  • Immunotherapy to allow the immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells
  • Targeted therapies, including drugs targeting epidermal growth factor receptors (EGFR)
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy