Head and Neck Cancer Symptoms


If you’ve started experiencing any strange symptoms on your head, neck or face—or within your throat—you may be questioning whether they’re symptoms of neck cancer or head cancer. Maybe you noticed a bump on your head—is it cancer or not? Is neck pain a cancer symptom? Is there such a thing as a neck cancer lump? Perhaps you’ve even begun searching for pictures of head and neck cancer, for instance, looking for pictures of necks with thyroid cancer.

Trying to self-diagnose what's causing your symptoms won't do you much good, nor will analyzing head and neck cancer pictures on your own. Instead, you should consult with a clinical oncology expert—such as the ones at Moffitt Cancer Center—about potential head cancer symptoms and signs of neck cancer. But until you can do that, we’ve compiled the following information on neck and head cancer symptoms.

What are the symptoms of head and neck cancer?

Head and neck cancer symptoms can affect specific areas of the mouth, throat, larynx, nose or sinuses. In most cases, the malignant growths develop in the squamous cells that form the surface layer (epithelium) above the moist tissue (mucosa) of the various head and neck structures, and cause symptoms that are localized to the immediate area.

Because the signs can vary, and because many common symptoms of head or neck cancer can also be caused by other, less serious conditions, it is important to always be vigilant for health changes and to follow up with a physician whenever anything unusual occurs. Keep in mind that the symptoms of a less serious condition like the common cold or the flu usually begin resolving within several days. So, if these symptoms last longer than a week, you should consult with a medical professional to determine whether they’re being caused by something more serious, such as cancer. And if you're at all concerned, don't delay reaching out to a clinical oncology specialist, since early diagnosis and treatment could allow for significantly more treatment options.

Woman with ear pain

General symptoms

As outlined in the following section, the symptoms of head and neck cancer will vary depending on the specific type of disease present. With that being said, some general warning signs include:

  • A mouth sore that bleeds easily or does not heal within a few days
  • A red or white patch on the gums, tongue or cheek lining
  • A swelling, lump or thickness in the neck or face
  • A persistent sore throat
  • Chewing or swallowing difficulties
  • Mouth or tongue numbness
  • Persistent hoarseness or vocal changes
  • Blood in the sputum
  • Frequent nosebleeds
  • Chronic nasal congestion or sinus infections
  • Ear pain
  • Loose teeth or dentures that no longer fit well
  • A mole on the head or neck that changes in size or color

More specific symptoms

Head and neck cancer is an umbrella term collectively referring to a variety of malignancies affecting that area of the body. Each one produces its own set of symptoms, although there is some degree of crossover. In general, as each type of cancer progresses, the tumor will grow larger and exert an increasing amount of pressure on the surrounding structures, which will in turn make symptoms more pronounced.

Oral cavity cancer symptoms

Oral cancer can affect any portion of the mouth, which includes the lips, the cheeks, the gums, the roof of the mouth (palate) and the tongue. This malignancy can cause:

  • Red or white patches on the lips
  • Sores and swelling within the mouth
  • Loss of healthy teeth
  • Difficulty moving the tongue or the jaw
  • A sensation of having something stuck in the throat

Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer symptoms

Nasal cavity cancer develops within and behind the nose, while paranasal sinus cancer develops in the air-filled spaces surrounding the nose. These two malignancies can cause:

  • Facial pain
  • Watery eyes
  • Vision changes
  • Nasal congestion
  • Nosebleeds
  • Postnasal drip

Nasopharyngeal cancer symptoms

Nasopharyngeal cancer occurs in the nasopharynx, which is located in the upper portion of the throat, behind the nose. Symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Facial pain, numbness or tingling
  • Blurred vision
  • Ear infections
  • A feeling of pressure inside the ear canal
  • Ringing within the ears
  • Nasal congestion
  • Nosebleeds
  • Difficulty opening the mouth
  • Small lumps on one or both sides of the neck

Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer symptoms

Laryngeal cancer affects the voice box (larynx), which contains the vocal cords and is located between the base of the tongue and the trachea. Hypopharyngeal cancer develops in the hypopharynx, which is located in the lower portion of the throat, directly above the esophagus. Both of these malignancies can cause:

  • Coughing
  • Hoarseness
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Throat soreness

Throat cancer symptoms

The symptoms of throat cancer will vary from one individual to another. However, most people with this malignancy experience at least one of the following symptoms:

  • Headaches
  • Earaches
  • Coughing
  • Sore throat
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Hoarseness
  • Voice cracking
  • A visible lump within the throat

As throat cancer progresses, it can begin to affect the rest of the body, as well. Late-stage throat cancer symptoms may include fatigue and unexplained weight loss.

Doctor checking patient's throat

How to treat head and neck cancer

As with any other type of malignancy, treatment for head and neck cancer will vary from one patient to another. When determining what course of treatment to pursue, clinical oncology specialists will consider factors such as:

  • The specific type of head and neck cancer present
  • The location of the cancer cells
  • How far the cancer has already progressed (for example, whether the cancer is still in its early stages or the patient has begun experiencing end-stage head and neck cancer symptoms)
  • The patient's age
  • The patient's overall health

With that said, head and neck cancer treatment often involves one or more of the following approaches:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Surgery
  • Targeted therapy

Moffitt's approach to treating head and neck cancer

In Moffitt Cancer Center's Head and Neck Cancer Program, our multispecialty team collaboratively assesses each patient's symptoms and test results. After confirming a diagnosis of head or neck cancer, this unique tumor board will develop a highly individualized treatment plan and closely monitor the patient's progress. Whenever appropriate, we recommend participation in our clinical trials, which provide patients with early access to promising new therapies that are not yet available in other settings.

If you are experiencing head and neck cancer symptoms, consult with the outstanding team of experts at Moffitt, where we offer a full range of head and neck cancer treatments and supportive care services in a single, convenient location. For more information, call 1-888-663-3488 or complete a new patient registration form online. We're proud to provide each new patient with access to a cancer expert within just one day—a turnaround time that’s faster than that of any other cancer hospital across the country.

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