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. 

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 that won't heal or swelling of the jaw.

In addition to physical signs of head and neck cancer, these tumors may 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, but may also result from a variety of viruses or other conditions, so it's important to see a doctor who can diagnose the cause of these symptoms.

Common symptoms of head and neck cancer

Some of the frequently-occurring signs of head and neck cancer include:

  • A lump in the nose, neck, jaw or throat, with or without pain
  • A persistent sore throat
  • A mouth ulcer
  • Trouble swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Frequent coughing
  • Numbness in the face, jaw or neck
  • Trouble moving the jaw
  • Change in voice or hoarseness
  • Ear pain, ringing in the ears or trouble hearing
  • Headaches
  • A red or white patch in the mouth
  • Facial pain or weakness
  • Loose teeth
  • Difficulty chewing
  • Dentures that no longer fit correctly
  • Bad breath that's unexplained by hygiene
  • Nasal obstruction or persistent congestion
  • Frequent nose bleeds or unusual nasal discharge
  • Trouble breathing

Where head and neck cancers develop

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:

Learn more about head and neck cancer types

When to see a doctor

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 therapy. If hoarseness, a sore throat, ear pain or any of the symptoms above occur and the patient is concerned about cancer, schedule a visit with a doctor or dentist.

Many of these symptoms are related to other conditions or may be completely normal on their own. However, if the care team shares the patient's concern about cancer, he or she may be referred to a specialist called an otolaryngologist for a more thorough examination and workup.

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Show references
  • National Cancer Institute (2021, May 25). Head and Neck Cancers.
  • American Cancer Society (2021, April 19). Signs and Symptoms of Nasal and Paranasal Sinus Cancers.