Signs and Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancer

Cancers of the head and neck are some of the few cancers for which a particular cause can often be identified. Smoking and a high intake of alcohol increase the risk for head and neck cancers substantially.

The common symptoms of cancer of the head and neck include

  • persistent pain in the throat;
  • pain or difficulty with swallowing;
  • persistent hoarseness or a change in voice;
  • pain in the ear; and
  • bleeding in the mouth or throat.

Because about half of all head and neck cancers originate in the oral cavity, sores or lesions in the mouth can be warning signs. Two types of lesions that could be precursors to cancer are leukoplakia (white lesions) and erythroplakia (red lesions). Although less common than leukoplakia, erythroplakias have a much greater potential for becoming cancerous. Any white or red lesion that does not heal or disappear in 2 weeks should be evaluated by a physician and considered for biopsy.

Other possible signs/symptoms of oral cancer include:

  • lump or thickening in oral soft tissues;
  • soreness or feeling that something is stuck in the throat;
  • difficulty chewing or swallowing;
  • difficulty moving the jaw or tongue;
  • numbness of the tongue or other parts of the mouth; and
  • swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 15 Aug 1999

Last Modified: 25 Jun 2014