Head & Neck Cancer

Definition

Head and neck cancer includes cancers of the mouthnose, sinuses, salivary glandsthroat, and lymph nodes in the neck. Most begin in the moist tissues that line the mouth, nose, and throat.

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Alternative Names

These squamous cell cancers are often referred to as squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck.

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Causes

Alcohol and tobacco use (including smokeless tobacco, sometimes called “chewing tobacco” or “snuff”) are the two most important risk factors for head and neck cancers, especially cancers of the oral cavity, oropharynx, hypopharynx, and larynx (25). At least 75% of head and neck cancers are caused by tobacco and alcohol use (6). People who use both tobacco and alcohol are at greater risk of developing these cancers than people who use either tobacco or alcohol alone (68). Tobacco and alcohol use are not risk factors for salivary gland cancers.

Infection with cancer-causing types of human papillomavirus (HPV), especially HPV type 16, is a risk factor for some types of head and neck cancers, particularly oropharyngeal cancers that involve the tonsils or the base of the tongue (911). In the United States, the incidence of oropharyngeal cancers caused by HPV infection is increasing, while the incidence of oropharyngeal cancers related to other causes is falling (9). More information is available in the HPV and Cancer fact sheet.

Other risk factors for cancers of the head and neck include the following:

Paan (betel quid). Immigrants from Southeast Asia who use paan (betel quid) in the mouth should be aware that this habit has been strongly associated with an increased risk of oral cancer (1213).

Preserved or salted foods. Consumption of certain preserved or salted foods during childhood is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer (1415).

Oral health. Poor oral hygiene and missing teeth may be weak risk factors for cancers of the oral cavity (1617). Use of mouthwash that has a high alcohol content is a possible, but not proven, risk factor for cancers of the oral cavity (1617).

Occupational exposure. Occupational exposure to wood dust is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer (1415). Certain industrial exposures, including exposures to asbestos and synthetic fibers, have been associated with cancer of the larynx, but the increase in risk remains controversial (18). People working in certain jobs in the construction, metal, textile, ceramic, logging, and food industries may have an increased risk of cancer of the larynx (19). Industrial exposure to wood or nickel dust or formaldehyde is a risk factor for cancers of the paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity (2022).

Radiation exposure. Radiation to the head and neck, for noncancerous conditions or cancer, is a risk factor for cancer of the salivary glands (162324).

Epstein-Barr virus infection. Infection with the Epstein-Barr virus is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer (25) and cancer of the salivary glands (2627).

Ancestry. Asian ancestry, particularly Chinese ancestry, is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer (1415).

Symptoms

The symptoms of head and neck cancers may include a lump or a sore that does not heal, a sore throat that does not go away, difficulty in swallowing, and a change or hoarseness in the voice. These symptoms may also be caused by other, less serious conditions. It is important to check with a doctor or dentist about any of these symptoms. Symptoms that may affect specific areas of the head and neck include the following:

Oral cavity. A white or red patch on the gums, the tongue, or the lining of the mouth; a swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable; and unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth.

Pharynx. Trouble breathing or speaking; pain when swallowing; pain in the neck or the throat that does not go away; frequent headaches, pain, or ringing in the ears; or trouble hearing.

Larynx. Pain when swallowing or ear pain.

Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity. Sinuses that are blocked and do not clear; chronic sinus infections that do not respond to treatment with antibiotics; bleeding through the nose; frequent headaches, swelling or other trouble with the eyes; pain in the upper teeth; or problems with dentures.

Salivary glands. Swelling under the chin or around the jawbone, numbness or paralysis of the muscles in the face, or pain in the face, the chin, or the neck that does not go away.

Exams and Tests

To find the cause of the signs or symptoms of a problem in the head and neck area, a doctor evaluates a person’s medical history, performs a physical examination, and orders diagnostic tests. The exams and tests may vary depending on the symptoms. Examination of a sample of tissue under a microscope is always necessary to confirm a diagnosis of cancer.

If the diagnosis is cancer, the doctor will want to learn the stage (or extent) of disease. Staging is a careful attempt to find out whether the cancer has spread and, if so, to which parts of the body. Staging may involve an examination under anesthesia (in an operating room), x-rays and other imaging procedures, and laboratory tests. Knowing the stage of the disease helps the doctor plan treatment.

Treatments

The treatment plan for an individual patient depends on a number of factors, including the exact location of the tumor, the stage of the cancer, and the person’s age and general health. Treatment for head and neck cancer can include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or a combination of treatments.

People who are diagnosed with HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer may be treated differently than people with oropharyngeal cancers that are HPV-negative. Recent research has shown that patients with HPV-positive oropharyngeal tumors have a better prognosis and may do just as well on less intense treatment. An ongoing clinical trial is investigating this question.

Possible Complications

Surgery for head and neck cancers often changes the patient’s ability to chew, swallow, or talk. The patient may look different after surgery, and the face and neck may be swollen. The swelling usually goes away within a few weeks. However, if lymph nodes are removed, the flow of lymph in the area where they were removed may be slower and lymph could collect in the tissues, causing additional swelling; this swelling may last for a long time.

After a laryngectomy (surgery to remove the larynx) or other surgery in the neck, parts of the neck and throat may feel numb because nerves have been cut. If lymph nodes in the neck were removed, the shoulder and neck may become weak and stiff.

Patients who receive radiation to the head and neck may experience redness, irritation, and sores in the mouth; a dry mouth or thickened saliva; difficulty in swallowing; changes in taste; or nausea. Other problems that may occur during treatment are loss of taste, which may decrease appetite and affect nutrition, and earaches (caused by the hardening of ear wax). Patients may also notice some swelling or drooping of the skin under the chin and changes in the texture of the skin. The jaw may feel stiff, and patients may not be able to open their mouth as wide as before treatment.

Patients should report any side effects to their doctor or nurse, and discuss how to deal with them.

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When to Contact a Medical Professional

Regular follow-up care is very important after treatment for head and neck cancer to make sure that the cancer has not returned, or that a second primary (new) cancer has not developed. Depending on the type of cancer, medical checkups could include exams of the stoma, if one has been created, and of the mouth, neck, and throat. Regular dental exams may also be necessary.

From time to time, the doctor may perform a complete physical exam, blood tests, x-rays, and computed tomography (CT), positron emission tomography (PET), or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. The doctor may monitor thyroid and pituitary gland function, especially if the head or neck was treated with radiation. Also, the doctor is likely to counsel patients to stop smoking. Research has shown that continued smoking by a patient with head and neck cancer may reduce the effectiveness of treatment and increase the chance of a second primary cancer.

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Preventions

People who are at risk of head and neck cancers―particularly those who use tobacco―should talk with their doctor about ways that they may be able to reduce their risk. They should also discuss with their doctor how often to have checkups. In addition, ongoing clinical trials are testing the effectiveness of various medications in preventing head and neck cancers in people who have a high risk of developing these diseases. Descriptions of these clinical trials can be accessed by searching NCI’s list of cancer clinical trials. NCI’s list of cancer clinical trials includes all NCI-supported clinical trials that are taking place across the United States and Canada and around the world.  For information about other ways to search the list, see Help Finding NCI-Supported Clinical Trials.

Information specialists from NCI’s Contact Center can also help people find clinical trials for the prevention of head and neck cancers. The Contact Center can be reached at 1–800–4–CANCER (1–800–422–6237) or by chatting with a cancer information specialist online through LiveHelp.

Avoiding oral HPV infection may reduce the risk of HPV-associated head and neck cancers. However, it is not yet known whether the Food and Drug Administration-approved HPV vaccines Gardasil®, Gardasil 9®, and Cervarix® prevent HPV infection of the oral cavity, and none of these vaccines has yet been approved for the prevention of oropharyngeal cancer. More information about these vaccines is in the NCI fact sheet Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccines.