Head and neck cancer

Head and neck cancer is a relatively uncommon type of cancer. See your GP if you have any symptoms below, which are causing you concern. It's unlikely that you will have cancer, but if it is cancer, an early diagnosis can make all the difference.

About head and neck cancer

There are more than 30 areas within the head and neck where cancer can develop, including the:

Oesophageal (gullet) cancer, thyroid cancer, brain tumours and eye cancer don't tend to be classified as a head and neck cancer.

Mouth cancer

Mouth cancer is the most common type of head and neck cancer.

It can affect a number of areas in and around the mouth, including the:

  • lips
  • tongue
  • inside of the cheeks
  • floor or roof of the mouth
  • gums

Symptoms of mouth cancer can include persistent mouth ulcers and/or a lump in your mouth, both of which may be painful.

Laryngeal cancer

Laryngeal cancer develops in the tissue of the larynx (voice box).

Symptoms of laryngeal cancer can include:

  • a change in the voice, such as persistent hoarseness
  • difficulty or pain when swallowing
  • noisy breathing
  • shortness of breath
  • a persistent cough
  • a lump or swelling in your neck

Throat cancers

Doctors don't tend to use the term ’throat cancer’, as the throat (pharynx) includes many different parts that can be affected by cancer.

The main areas that can be affected are the:

  • oropharynx – the part of the throat at the back of the mouth
  • hypopharynx – the part of the throat connecting the oropharynx to the gullet and windpipe
  • nasopharynx – the part of the throat that connects the back of the nose to the back of the mouth (see below)

The most common symptoms of cancer in the oropharynx or hypopharynx include a lump in the neck, a persistent sore throat and difficulty swallowing.

Salivary gland cancer

Salivary glands produce saliva, which keeps your mouth moist and helps with swallowing and digestion.

There are three main pairs of salivary glands. They are the:

  • parotid glands – located between your cheeks and your ears
  • sublingual glands – located under your tongue
  • submandibular glands – located under each side of your jawbone

Salivary gland cancer most commonly affects the parotid glands.

The main symptom of salivary gland cancer is a lump or swelling on or near your jaw, or in your mouth or neck.

Although the vast majority of these lumps are non-cancerous. Other symptoms can include numbness in part of your face and drooping on one side of your face.

Nose and sinus cancer

Nose and sinus cancer affects the nasal cavity (above the roof of your mouth) and the sinuses (the small, air-filled cavities inside the bones of the nose and within the cheekbones and forehead).

The symptoms of nose and sinus cancer are similar to viral or bacterial infections, such as the common cold or sinusitis, and include:

  • a persistent blocked nose, which usually only affects one side
  • nosebleeds
  • a decreased sense of smell
  • mucus running from the nose or down the throat

Nasopharyngeal cancer

Nasopharyngeal cancer affects the part of the throat that connects the back of the nose to the back of the mouth. It's one of the rarest types of head and neck cancer.

Symptoms can include:

  • a lump in the neck, due to the cancer spreading to the lymph nodes (pea-sized lumps of tissue that make up part of the immune system) in the neck
  • a blocked or stuffy nose
  • nosebleeds
  • hearing loss (usually only in one ear)

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information, read terms and conditions.

This page was published May 2018

This page is due for review May 2019

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