Call us 24/7

Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-CTCA products or services.

Q&A: Answers to common questions about head and neck cancer

Head and neck cancer
Head and neck cancers are a complex group of malignancies that include those of the mouth, larynx, pharynx, salivary glands and nasal cavities.

The term “head and neck cancer” covers a lot of ground. These cancers are a complex group of malignancies that include those of the mouth, larynx, pharynx, salivary glands and nasal cavities. Head and neck cancers account for about 4 percent of all cancers in the United States, and an increasing number of younger patients are being diagnosed with the disease. The uptick in head and neck cancer patients in their 40s and 50s is attributed to a rise in human papillomavirus (HPV)-linked cancers. Still, more patients overall are surviving head and neck cancer, thanks in part to public health awareness efforts about tobacco use—the single largest risk factor for the disease—and advances in treatment options.

To help you make informed decisions about the journey ahead, it’s important to educate yourself on the various types of head and neck cancer, including their symptoms, potential side effects and available treatments. Here are some answers to common questions about the many different head and neck cancers.

What is head and neck cancer?

Head and neck cancers originate in the tissues and organs of the head and neck area. Most head and neck cancers begin in the squamous cells that line the mouth, nose and throat. These types of cancer, generally referred to as squamous cell carcinomas, may include cancer that develops in the larynx, throat, lips, mouth, nose or salivary glands.

What are the symptoms of head and neck cancer?

The most common symptoms of head and neck cancer are swelling and a sore that doesn’t heal. Other symptoms include voice changes or hoarseness, a neck mass, a sore throat that doesn’t respond to an antibiotic, bloody and/or frequent coughs, trouble swallowing or breathing, a red or white patch in the mouth, frequent nose bleeds or unusual discharge, ear pain or trouble hearing and headaches.

What are the main types of head and neck cancer?

The five main types of head and neck cancer are classified according to the part of the body in which they develop:

Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer may start in the larynx (voice box), which is located at the top of the trachea (windpipe), and is used in breathing, speaking and swallowing. Or the cancer may start in the hypopharynx (gullet), which is the lower part of the throat that surrounds the larynx. Cancer that starts in the larynx is one of the most common types of head and neck cancer.

Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer may start in the space just behind the nose, where air passes on its way to the throat. Or it may start in the air-filled areas that surround the nasal cavity (paranasal sinuses). Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer are uncommon.

Nasopharyngeal cancer begins in the nasopharynx, which is an air passage located at the very upper part of the throat, just behind the nose. This disease is uncommon.

Oral and oropharyngeal cancer forms in the mouth or tongue—both of which part of the oral cavity—or in the middle of the throat (oropharynx), which extends from the tonsils to the top of the larynx. Oral cancer is the ninth most common cancer among men.

Salivary gland cancer starts in the glands that produce saliva, which is essential for breaking down food. Salivary gland cancer is rare.

What are the biggest risk factors for head and neck cancer?

Tobacco use is the biggest risk factor for head and neck cancer. In fact, an estimated 85 percent of head and neck cancers are linked to tobacco use, and 75 percent of head and neck cancers are associated with a combination of tobacco and alcohol use, though tobacco and alcohol use is not a significant risk factor for salivary gland cancers.

Other primary risk factors include:

  • Gender: Men are two to three times more likely than women to have head and neck cancer.
  • Age: Head and neck cancers are more common in people over the age of 50.
  • Certain illnesses: The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), the human papillomavirus (HPV) and two inherited genetic syndromes are among the illnesses that may raise the risk of head and neck cancer.
  • Sun exposure: Prolonged exposure to sunlight may increase the risk of lip cancer, which is a type of oral cancer.

What type of doctor should I see if I think I have head and neck cancer?

If you have a symptom of head and neck cancer, a timely diagnostic evaluation is essential to starting a treatment plan or ruling out cancer. An oncologist trained and experienced in treating head and neck cancer may diagnose your cancer and advise you on a treatment or combination of treatments tailored to your needs and your specific cancer. You may want to specifically seek out an otolaryngologist, a doctor who treats diseases of the ear, nose and throat, especially one who has experience treating cancer, to diagnose the disease and advise you on what you should do next.

Get answers to more common questions about head and neck cancer.