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Head and Neck Cancer Signs and Symptoms

You may not notice any symptoms in the early stages of head and neck cancer. Your health care provider or dentist may spot symptoms during an exam. Or signs of cancer might show up on an imaging test you have for another reason.

Signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer

If symptoms develop, they can vary based on the type of head and neck cancer. And they may be caused by other, noncancerous conditions. You may notice any of these symptoms:


  • Sore throat that doesn't go away after a week or two, especially on one side (most common symptom)
  • Red or white spot in the mouth
  • Broken skin inside your mouth (mouth ulcer) or a mouth sore that doesn't heal within two weeks
  • Problems chewing, opening your mouth or moving your jaw or tongue
  • Loose teeth
  • Dentures that no longer fit
  • Bad breath


  • Frequent coughing 
  • Pain when swallowing or trouble swallowing (dysphagia), which could feel like food is getting stuck in your throat or that it takes more effort to swallow
  • Weight loss
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Trouble speaking, hoarseness or a change in your voice

Nose and Sinuses:

  • Frequent nosebleeds
  • Bloody mucus or saliva
  • Nasal congestion or frequent sinus infections
  • Reduced sense of smell

Head and Neck:

  • Swelling, lump, bump or mass 
  • Numbness or weakness 


  • Changes to a mole or freckle
  • A skin sore that doesn't heal


  • Double vision
  • A bulging eye
  • A watery eye


  • Ear pain, trouble hearing, ringing, or fluid draining (especially in one ear)
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss

Many of these symptoms could be caused by other conditions. But if you notice any of them, contact your health care provider. If you have head and neck cancer, diagnosing it early may make treatment less complex and improve the odds that treatment works well.

Types of head and neck cancer

There are different types of cancers based on the part of the head or neck where they occur. Some types include:

  • Squamous cell carcinomas found on the moist skin inside your mouth and throat and lining your organs. You may be familiar with squamous cell carcinoma as a type of skin cancer, but squamous cells are also found throughout your body, such as in your digestive and respiratory tracts. About 90% of head and neck cancers are squamous cell carcinomas.
  • Laryngeal cancer, which affects your larynx (voice box). 
  • Nasopharyngeal cancer, which affects the area behind your nose and above your throat. It’s rare in the U.S. and more commonly found in Asia, North Africa and the Middle East.
  • Hypopharyngeal cancer, which affects the bottom of your throat, behind your voice box.
  • Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer, which forms in the nasal cavity and the tissue of the sinuses (air-filled cavities) around or near your nose.
  • Salivary gland cancer, which is rare. When it occurs, it most often strikes the largest salivary glands in front of and below each ear. 
  • Oral (mouth) cancer, which can affect your lips, gums, the front of your tongue, the lining of your cheeks, the floor of your mouth (under the tongue), the hard palate (bony roof of your mouth) and the area behind your wisdom teeth.
  • Oropharyngeal cancer, which affects the soft palate, parts of the throat, the tonsils and the back of the tongue.

Learn about diagnosing head and neck cancer

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