Head and neck cancer covers a range of different cancer types. They include cancer of the oral cavity, throat, voice box, nasal cavity and the surrounding paranasal sinuses, and salivary glands.

Head and neck cancer usually starts in the squamous cells found in the soft surfaces inside the head and neck. These surfaces include the mouth, nose, and throat.

This article explores the kinds of head and neck cancer. It also discusses the symptoms that can occur with the different head and neck cancer types, the treatments available, and the outlook.

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There are numerous types of head and neck cancer. The type will depend on where in the head or neck the cancer is:

  • Oral cavity: This type of cancer can develop in the:
    • lips
    • front two-thirds of the tongue
    • gums
    • cheeks
    • floor of the mouth
    • roof of the mouth
    • area behind the wisdom teeth
  • Throat, or pharynx: This kind of cancer can develop in the:
    • nasopharynx, which is the part of the throat behind the nose
    • oropharynx, the area of the throat behind the mouth
    • hypopharynx, which is the part of the throat below the mouth
  • Voice box, or larynx: This type of cancer can affect the following:
    • the voice box and vocal cords
    • the epiglottis, which stops food from entering the airway
  • Paranasal sinuses: This kind of cancer affects the spaces between the bones around the nose.
  • Nasal cavity: This type of cancer occurs in the space in the nose.
  • Salivary glands: This kind of cancer develops in the glands at the floor of the mouth by the jawbone.

The following areas of the body usually have a classification of their own rather than fall into the category of head and neck cancer:

Symptoms of head and neck cancer will depend on where the cancer begins.

Oral cavity

Symptoms of cancer in the oral cavity include:

Although the patches in the mouth are not cancerous, they can lead to cancer.

Learn more about the early signs of oral cancer here.


The pharynx is another term for the throat.

Symptoms of nasopharyngeal cancer include:

Sometimes, however, a person with nasopharyngeal cancer will not have any symptoms.

Voice box

The larynx, also called the voice box, contains the vocal cords.

Symptoms of laryngeal cancer include:

Learn more about laryngeal cancer here.

Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity

Symptoms of nasal and paranasal cancer include problems with the nose, eyes, and sometimes the mouth or ears.

Among nasal symptoms are:

Eye symptoms include:

A person can also experience other issues, such as:

  • lump on the face, on the nose, or in the mouth
  • facial numbness
  • headaches
  • hearing loss

Salivary glands

Salivary glands are responsible for producing saliva.

Symptoms of cancer in the salivary glands include:

According to Cancer Research UK, 75% of tumors of the salivary glands are not cancerous, and salivary gland cancer is rare.

Learn more about salivary gland cancer here.

According to the National Cancer Institute, the two biggest risk factors for developing head and neck cancers are alcohol consumption and use of tobacco, including chewing tobacco or snuff.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that the human papillomavirus (HPV) causes approximately 70% of oropharyngeal cancers, which affect the tonsils, soft palate, and base of the tongue.

Learn more about HPV here.

The CDC state that men are twice as likely to develop head and neck cancer than women. People over the age of 50 are also more likely to have this type of cancer.

Other risk factors include:

The type of treatment a person needs will depend on the type of cancer they have and its stage.

Treatments may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or a combination of these.

If the cancer has spread to another part of the body, a person’s treatment may change.

Surgery and radiotherapy

According to a 2014 study, early stage head and neck cancer usually requires surgery or radiotherapy. People with advanced head and neck cancer receive treatment involving surgery, radiotherapy, or radiochemotherapy.

A person may also need surgery to help them manage changes brought about by the surgery to treat cancer. This can include inserting feeding tubes if a person is unable to swallow.

Clinical trials

A person may be able to take part in head and neck cancer clinical trials and research.

Clinical trials may give people access to treatments that are not widely available, such as new drug therapies, safer types of radiation therapies, and new approaches to after-treatment care.

A person may wish to contact a healthcare professional about the possibility to participate in a clinical trial.

Learn more about how clinical trials work here.

Side effects

According to the American Cancer Society, side effects of head and neck cancer treatment include:

Follow-up care

There is no standard follow-up procedure for head and neck cancer care, and care will change according to a person’s individual needs.

Follow-up care aims to monitor a person to check that their cancer has not come back, as well as to detect it early if it does return.

To diagnose head and neck cancer, a doctor will collect a person’s medical history, do physical examinations, and order diagnostic tests.


These tests may include an ultrasound scan of the neck or a nasendoscopy, which looks at the back of the mouth, nose, pharynx, and larynx.

Other tests may include:


A person may need to undergo examination while they are under general anesthesia so that a doctor can examine an area more closely with an endoscope.

If a person is not able to have general anesthetic, a doctor may opt for a transnasal flexible laryngo-esophagoscopy instead.

This involves spraying the nose and throat with an anesthetic and inserting an endoscope into the nose and throat. A person would be awake during the test.

Learn more about endoscopy here.

Head and neck cancer can spread to other parts of the body. Doctors call this metastatic cancer. For instance, cancer cells can travel to the lungs and begin to grow there.

Head and neck cancer can spread from the original site to nearby areas of the body. It can also spread to the lymph nodes and through the lymphatic system, as well as through the nerves and blood vessels.

According to the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA), head and neck cancer commonly spreads to the lymph nodes in the neck. The RSNA also state that head and neck cancer is more likely to spread to farther parts of the body if it is in the lymph nodes in the lower part of the neck.

A person’s outlook will depend on how advanced their cancer is.

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence state that 80% of people with early stage oral cancers have a 5-year survival rate.

According to the American Cancer Society, long-term survival following head and neck cancer is becoming increasingly common.

Head and neck cancer primarily affects the nose, mouth, and throat. A person with head and neck cancer may experience growths, pain, nosebleeds, or difficulty seeing or swallowing.

A person is more likely to develop head and neck cancer if they smoke, drink alcohol, or chew betel nuts.

Treatments include surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy. Additionally, clinical trials are available for people to try newer types of treatment.

According to the American Cancer Society, long-term survival of people with head and neck cancer is growing, and a person should set up a follow-up care routine that regularly checks whether the cancer has returned.