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What is Head and Neck Cancer?

Head and neck cancer refers collectively to cancers that arise in the head and neck region. These cancers typically begin in the squamous cells that line the moist surfaces inside the mouth, nose, and throat.

Head and neck cancers can start in the:

  • Sinuses
  • Nose
  • Mouth, including the tongue, the gums, and the roof of the mouth
  • Back of the mouth and the throat, which includes three sections called the nasopharynx, oropharynx, and hypopharynx
  • Larynx (voice box)


Most head and neck cancers produce early symptoms. Those symptoms may differ according to the part of the head or neck that is cancerous.

There are several head and neck cancer signs and symptoms, including:

  • Lump, bump, or mass in the head or neck area, with or without pain
  • Persistent sore throat
  • Hoarseness or change in voice
  • Nasal obstruction or persistent nasal congestion
  • Frequent nose bleeds and/or unusual nasal discharge
  • Blood in the saliva or phlegm
  • Ear and/or jaw pain

These symptoms may also be caused by other, less serious conditions, so it is important to check with your physician.


Tobacco use is the most preventable cause of head and neck cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 480,000 people die each year from smoking-related illnesses in the United States. The good news is that this figure has decreased due to the increasing number of Americans who have quit smoking. The bad news is that some of these smokers switched to smokeless or spit tobacco, assuming it is a safe alternative. By doing so, they are only changing the site of the cancer risk from their lungs to their mouths. While lung cancer cases are decreasing, cancers in the head and neck appear to be increasing, but they are treatable if caught early.

Although there is no standard or routine screening test for head and neck cancers, dentists may check the oral cavity for signs of cancer during a routine checkup. Performing monthly self-exams can also help improve early detection and diagnosis of head and neck cancers.

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