Head and neck cancer symptoms

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science.

This page was updated on June 23, 2022.

Head and neck cancer symptoms may depend on where the cancer develops and how it spreads. The most commonly affected areas are the ears, nose and throat. Understand the risk factors for developing head and neck cancer.

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

In addition to physical signs of head and neck cancer, these tumors often cause symptoms that are similar to less serious conditions, like the common cold. Changes in voice, headaches, sore throat or a cough may be symptoms of throat cancer. Other head and neck cancer symptoms include pain or ringing in the ears.

Common symptoms of head and neck cancer tumors 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

Head and neck cancers typically begin in the squamous cells that line the moist surfaces inside the head and neck. Some examples of these moist surfaces include the inside of the mouth, nose and throat.

The sites where head and neck cancers may develop are broken into five areas:

  • Nasal cavity (the inside of the nose) and paranasal sinuses (spaces in bones around the nose)
  • Oral cavity (the mouth)
  • Salivary glands (located under the tongue)
  • Pharynx (the throat)
  • Larynx (situated below the pharynx and used for swallowing and talking)

When it comes to specific head and neck cancers, these include:

Symptoms of head and neck cancers depend on where the cancer starts and its unique risk factors. One of the most common symptoms is experiencing pain in particular places in the head or neck.

Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer symptoms

The nose opens into the nasal cavity, which is divided into two passages. This cavity curves down at the back to join the throat. Paranasal sinuses are sinuses near the nose. They are hollow, air-filled spaces in the bones around the nose.

These types of cancers are often found only because of the symptoms they cause. Possible symptoms include:

  • Nasal congestion that doesn’t go away; a blockage on one side of the nose; a post-nasal drip; nosebleeds; pus that drains out of the nose; a loss of smell
  • Pain or pressure in one of the ears; hearing loss
  • Pain above or below the eyes; watery or bulging eyes; a change in vision

A growth or mass in the face, nose, or top of mouth may be another symptom of cancer in the nasal cavity or sinuses—as well as numbness or pain in the face, numbness in the teeth, or even loosening of the teeth. Headaches, trouble opening your mouth and enlarged lymph nodes in the neck may also signal possible cancer.

Oral cavity cancer symptoms

The oral cavity includes the:

  • Lips
  • Front part of the tongue
  • Gums
  • Lining inside the cheek and lips
  • Bottom of the mouth under the tongue
  • Roof of the mouth
  • Small area behind the wisdom teeth

There may be many symptoms, and most center around the area of the mouth, including:

  • Mouth ulcers that don’t heal, or patches on the gums, tongue or inside the mouth that are white or red
  • Loosening of teeth, or dentures that don’t fit right
  • Swelling in the jaw or unusual pain or bleeding in the mouth
  • Difficulty chewing, trouble swallowing or pain when you swallow
  • Sore throat or feeling that something is caught in your throat

Salivary gland cancer symptoms

Salivary glands make saliva and release it into the mouth. There are three major salivary glands:

  • Parotid glands (in front of and just below each ear)
  • Sublingual glands (under the tongue)
  • Submandibular glands (below the jawbone)

Symptoms for this type of cancer may include:

  • Painless lump in your ear, cheek, jaw, lip or inside of the mouth
  • Fluid draining from your ear
  • Trouble swallowing or opening mouth wide
  • Numbness or weakness in your face
  • Persistent pain in your face

Pharynx-related cancer symptoms

The pharynx, or throat, starts behind the nose and leads to the esophagus. In general, pharynx-related cancers may cause symptoms such as:

  • Difficulty breathing or speaking
  • Painful swallowing
  • Pain in your ears, neck or throat
  • Ringing in the ears Hearing difficulties
  • Frequent headaches

The pharynx consists of three main sections, and symptoms often involve more than one area of the head or neck.

Nasopharyngeal cancer: The nasopharynx connects the back of the nose to the upper portions of the throat. The most frequent complaint with this type of cancer is a neck mass. Other symptoms may include:

  • Sore throat
  • Trouble breathing or speaking
  • Nosebleeds
  • Trouble hearing, or pain or ringing in your ears
  • Headaches

Oropharyngeal cancer: The oropharynx connects the back of the oral cavity to the upper portions of the throat. It is found below the nasopharynx. Symptoms of this type of cancer include:

  • Persistent sore throat
  • Trouble swallowing or opening your mouth
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Ear pain
  • Lump in the back of your mouth, throat or neck
  • White patch on the tongue or inside of your mouth that doesn’t go away
  • Blood-streaked phlegm

In patients with a human papillomavirus (HPV) positive oropharyngeal cancer, the only symptom may be a neck mass.

Hypopharyngeal cancer: The hypopharynx, also called the laryngopharynx, is the lowest portion of the throat. It’s just underneath the nasopharynx and the oropharynx. People who have tumors here are often asymptomatic for a long period of time. Symptoms that may lead to seeing a doctor include:

  • Persistent sore throat
  • Ear pain
  • Neck lump
  • Painful or difficult swallowing
  • Change in your voice

Laryngeal cancer symptoms

The larynx is below the pharynx—it’s the part of the throat between the base of the tongue and the trachea, often called the windpipe. Symptoms of cancers associated with the larynx depend on the location. The supraglottic region is the part above the vocal cords; the glottis is the middle part of the larynx where the vocal cords are located; and the subglottic region is between the vocal cords and trachea.

Symptoms of cancer in the larynx may include:

  • Neck or throat lump
  • Persistent sore throat or cough
  • Painful or difficult swallowing
  • Ear pain
  • Change of voice, or hoarseness

Although a new mass in the head and neck region may mean many things, it’s important to get it checked for the possibility of cancer. When diagnosed early, many head and neck cancers may be treated with surgery or radiation. If you have hoarseness, a sore throat, ear pain or any of the symptoms above and are concerned about cancer, schedule a visit with your doctor or dentist.

Many of these symptoms are related to other conditions or may be completely normal on their own. However, if your doctor shares your concern about cancer, you may be referred to a specialist called an otolaryngologist for a more thorough examination and workup.

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