Head and neck cancer types

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was updated on May 19, 2022.

Head and neck cancers are classified according to the part of the body in which they occur. Head and neck cancer risk factors, diagnosis and treatment may vary depending on the subtype of the disease.

What is the most common head and neck cancer?

Oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers are the most common type of head and neck cancer, according to data from the American Cancer Society. The majority of head and neck cancers develop as squamous cell cancers, which are cancers that form in the mucosal surfaces of the body.

Types of head and neck cancer

Some types of head and neck cancer include those listed below.

Laryngeal cancer is found in the larynx, located at the top of the windpipe, or trachea. Also called the voice box, this tube-shaped organ is involved in breathing, talking and swallowing. The larynx also contains the epiglottis, a small piece of tissue that moves to cover the larynx and prevent food from entering the windpipe. Laryngeal cancer, a type of throat cancer, is one of the most common forms of head and neck cancer. Patients with laryngeal cancer often need voice rehabilitation after treatment to learn how to speak again.

Nasopharyngeal cancer is a type of throat cancer that develops when cancer cells grow in the nasopharynx, the upper part of the throat. This kind of cancer is rare, with fewer than one in 100,000 people in North America diagnosed with the disease each year. Although nasopharyngeal cancer is uncommon, because the disease typically doesn’t cause symptoms in its early stages and may mimic those of other, more common conditions, nasopharyngeal cancer is most often detected in its later stages. Nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC) is the most common malignant tumor of the nasopharynx. Nasopharyngeal carcinoma forms in the epithelial cells that line the surface of the nasopharynx.

Hypopharyngeal cancer is found in the hypopharynx in the lower part of the throat, which surrounds the larynx. This part of the body is also called the gullet. Hypopharyngeal cancer is a type of throat cancer.

Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer forms in the space just behind the nose, where air passes on its way to the throat and lungs. This type of cancer may also develop in the air-filled areas that surround the nasal cavity, called the paranasal sinuses. Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer are uncommon.

Salivary gland cancer is found in the glands that produce the saliva responsible for breaking down food. Salivary gland cancer is uncommon.

Oral cancer forms in the mouth. The oral cavity includes the lips, the inside lining of the lips and cheeks, the teeth, the gums, the front of the tongue, the floor of the mouth, and the roof of the mouth. Oral cancer is the ninth most common cancer among men.

Oropharyngeal cancer forms in the oropharynx, which is the part of the throat just behind the mouth. The oropharynx includes the base of the tongue, the back of the roof of the mouth, the tonsils, and the side and back walls of the throat. Human papillomavirus (HPV), as well as tobacco and alcohol use, may increase a person's risk for developing oropharyngeal cancer.

Tonsil cancer accounts for about 3.5 percent of all oral cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute. Tonsils serve as the front lines of the body’s immune system. Also known as “palatine tonsils,” they help the body recognize and defend itself against germs. Tobacco use is a leading cause of tonsil cancer. HPV is another cause of tonsil cancer. About 9,000 people a year are diagnosed with HPV-related cancer of the mouth and throat, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Next topic: What are the stages of head and neck cancer?

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