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Head and Neck Cancer Signs and Symptoms

The symptoms of head and neck cancer vary according to where the cancer began. Some general signs of head and neck cancer include the following:

A Mouth Ulcer

A broken area of skin (ulcer) that will not heal can be a sign of oral cancer. Most people with mouth cancer have this symptom.

A Lump in the Neck, Jaw, or Mouth

A lump in the jaw or mouth is a common sign of head and neck cancer. Lumps can also form in the lips.

A lump in the neck may be a sign of thyroid cancer. Or it may be caused by an enlarged lymph node. Swelling in one or more lymph nodes in the neck is a common symptom of head and neck cancer, including mouth cancer and salivary gland cancer.

Lumps that come and go are not typically due to cancer. Cancer usually forms a lump that slowly gets bigger.

Pain or Weakness in the Face

Pain or discomfort in the face that doesn’t go away is a common symptom of salivary gland cancer and mouth cancer.

Neck Pain

People with thyroid cancer sometimes notice swelling or small painless lumps called thyroid nodules in the front of the neck.

Difficulty Moving the Jaw

A head and neck tumor that involves the bones, muscles, or nerves of the jaw can make it difficult to open your mouth. Most people are able to open their mouth about the width of three fingers. If you are having trouble opening your mouth this wide, see your doctor. This condition is known as trismus. Chances are that you don’t have cancer, but it can lead to other serious health problems.

Difficulty Swallowing

Head and neck cancer can cause pain or a burning sensation when chewing and swallowing food. You might feel like food is stuck in your throat. You may cough or feel like food or liquid are going into the airway (windpipe).

Speech Problems

Head and neck cancer can affect your voice. It might sound different. It may be quieter or husky. It may sound as if you have a cold all the time. Or you might slur some of your words or have trouble pronouncing certain sounds.

Ear Pain or Hearing Loss

Ear pain is common with throat cancer. You may experience ringing in the ears.

Trouble Breathing

Throat cancer can affect breathing. Nasal congestion is a common sign of sinus cancer and other head and neck cancers. Some people may experience nosebleeds.

Sore Throat

Pain or discomfort in the throat that doesn’t go away is one of the most common symptoms of throat cancer.

White or Red Patches in the Mouth or Throat

An abnormal-looking patch could be a sign of cancer or precancerous changes.

  • White patches are called leukoplakia.
  • Red patches are called erythroplakia.

These patches are not cancer. If left untreated, however, they may lead to cancer. A fungal infection called oral thrush can also cause red and white patches.

Weight Loss

Weight loss is a common symptom of many different types of cancer. Head and neck cancer can make it painful to eat and difficult to swallow, which can cause weight loss.

Other Signs of Head and Neck Cancer

These can include one or more of the following:

  • a lump or thickening in the lips
  • unusual bleeding or numbness in the mouth
  • loose teeth for no clear reason
  • dentures that no longer fit
  • difficulty moving the jaw
  • frequent nosebleeds, ongoing nasal congestion, or chronic sinus infections that do not respond to treatment
  • difficulty chewing, swallowing, or moving the jaws or tongue
  • numbness in the tongue or other areas
  • changes or discoloration in a mole, or a skin sore that is crusted or fails to heal (these are also signs of skin cancer)

Symptoms of a head and neck tumor often resemble those caused by other conditions. If you experience any of these symptoms and have concerns, speak with your doctor.