The Signs + Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancer

It’s easy to confuse these signs with other, less serious conditions.

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With many types of cancer, symptoms during the early stages are subtle, nonspecific, and can easily be confused for another, less serious condition. Symptoms of head and neck cancers are no exception.

Because symptoms of different types of head and neck cancer may be subtle, many people may not know anything is wrong until the cancer progresses and causes more serious problems. In fact, head and neck cancers are sometimes spotted during routine checkups. This is when these cancers are often caught in an early stage—when treatment is more effective.

When trying to detect head and neck cancers early, it’s important to remember symptoms may vary depending on where the cancer is located. Head and neck cancer is an umbrella term for a cluster of cancers that often start in the mouth, nose, throat, or sinuses. Learn more about the types of head and neck cancer here.

Oral cavity cancer starts in the mouth, and oropharyngeal cancer starts in the back part of the mouth or throat. Oral cavity cancer is the most common type of head and neck cancer. If you have oral cavity cancer or oropharyngeal cancer, you may notice the following possible symptoms, according to Mark Persky, MD, otolaryngologist and surgeon at NYU Langone Health in New York City:

  • A persistent sore in the mouth that won’t heal

  • Persistent pain in the mouth

  • Lumps in the cheek

  • White or red patches inside the mouth

  • A sore throat

  • Trouble swallowing or chewing

  • Stiff or numb jaw or tongue

  • Voice changes

  • Weight loss

  • Constant bad breath

  • Lump in the neck (enlarged lymph nodes)

Enlarged lymph nodes is a sign that cancer has spread, or metastasized, beyond the primary site of the tumor.

Nasal cavity cancer starts in the open space behind the nose that joins the throat, and paranasal sinus cancer starts in the sinuses located throughout the front of the face. If you have nasal cavity cancer or paranasal sinus cancer, you may notice the following possible symptoms:

  • Persistent congestion and stuffiness

  • Pressure or pain in the sinuses (above and below the eyes and around the nose) or one of the ears

  • Post-nasal drip (when the nose drains down the back of the throat)

  • Nosebleeds or pus drainage

  • Reduced sense of smell

  • Lump or mass on the face, nose, or roof of the mouth (the palate)

  • Persistent watery eyes

  • Change in vision or hearing

  • Numbness in the teeth and parts of the face

  • Lump in the neck (enlarged lymph nodes)

Laryngeal cancer starts in the voice box (the larynx), and hypopharyngeal cancer starts behind and beside the larynx at the bottom of the throat. If you have laryngeal cancer or hypopharyngeal cancer, you may notice the following possible symptoms:

  • Voice changes, especially hoarseness (this symptom is detectable in early stages)

  • Persistent sore throat

  • Persistent coughing

  • Painful swallowing

  • Trouble breathing or swallowing

  • Ear pain

  • Lump in the neck (enlarged lymph nodes)

Nasopharyngeal cancer starts in the nasopharynx, the passageway connecting the nasal cavity to the throat. If you have nasopharyngeal cancer, you may notice the following possible symptoms:

  • Lump in the neck (enlarged lymph nodes)

  • Change in hearing, such as hearing loss or ringing in the ear

  • Repeated ear infections

  • Stuffy nose

  • Nosebleeds

  • Ache in the head and face

  • Blurry or double vision

  • Difficulty breathing or talking

If you notice these symptoms, especially if they are persistent and don’t seem to go away like a cold or flu would, check with your doctor. If you are diagnosed with head and neck cancer, starting treatment early can improve your outlook and lower the risk of the cancer spreading or coming back.