Overview

Head and neck cancers are cancers that start in the head and neck area. There are many kinds of cancer that can happen in the head and neck. Each kind begins as a growth of cells that can invade and destroy healthy body tissue.

Head and neck cancer often refers to cancers that start in the mouth, throat, sinuses and salivary glands. But other cancers can happen in the head and neck and are sometimes considered part of this category too.

Head and neck cancer isn't a diagnosis. Instead, it's a category of cancers that have some things in common. For example, many head and neck cancers share some risk factors and treatments. Most head and neck cancers begin in squamous cells. These thin, flat cells make up the outer layer of the skin. They also line the inside of the nose, mouth and throat. Cancers that begin in the squamous cells are called squamous cell carcinomas. Cancers can begin in other kinds of cells in the head and neck area, though these are less common.

Which treatment you'll have for your head and neck cancer depends on many factors. These might include the location of the cancer, its size and the type of cells involved. Your healthcare team also considers your overall health. Treatment options might include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and others.

Types

Symptoms

Head and neck cancer symptoms may include a sore in the mouth and pain when swallowing. Symptoms might depend on where the cancer starts. Head and neck cancers include cancers that start in the mouth, throat, sinuses and salivary glands.

Symptoms in the mouth and throat:

  • A lump in the neck that you might be able to feel through the skin. Typically the lump isn't painful.
  • A sore in the mouth that won't heal.
  • Coughing up blood.
  • Hoarse voice.
  • Loose teeth.
  • Pain when swallowing.

Symptoms in the nose:

  • Nosebleeds.
  • Stuffy or blocked nose that doesn't go away.

Other symptoms:

  • A sore on the skin of the face, neck or lips that doesn't heal.
  • Ear pain.
  • Losing weight without trying.

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with a doctor or other healthcare professional if you have any symptoms that worry you.

Causes

Experts aren't certain exactly what causes head and neck cancers. What causes a cancer may depend on where the cancer starts. Head and neck cancers include cancers that start in the mouth, throat, sinuses and salivary glands.

In general, head and neck cancer starts when a cell in the head and neck area develops changes in its DNA. A cell's DNA holds the instructions that tell a cell what to do. In healthy cells, the DNA gives instructions to grow and multiply at a set rate. The instructions tell the cells to die at a set time. In cancer cells, the changes give different instructions. The changes tell the cancer cells to make many more cells quickly. Cancer cells can keep living when healthy cells would die. This causes too many cells.

The cancer cells might form a mass called a tumor. The tumor can grow to invade and destroy healthy body tissue. In time, cancer cells can break away and spread to other parts of the body. When cancer spreads, it's called metastatic cancer.

Risk factors

Head and neck cancers have some risk factors in common. These include using tobacco and drinking alcohol. Other risk factors depend on the location of the cancer. Head and neck cancers include cancers that start in the mouth, throat, sinuses and salivary glands.

In general, things that increase the risk of head and neck cancers include:

  • Using tobacco. Using tobacco of any kind increases the risk of many types of head and neck cancer. Examples of kinds of tobacco include cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco and snuff.
  • Drinking alcohol. Frequent and heavy drinking increases the risk of many types of head and neck cancer.
  • Being exposed to human papillomavirus, also called HPV. HPV is a common virus that's passed through sexual contact. For most people, it causes no problems and goes away on its own. For others, it can cause changes in cells that can lead to many types of cancer. Many throat cancers are thought to be caused by HPV.
  • Breathing chemicals in the air. Exposure to chemicals in the air can increase the risk of cancer in the nose and sinuses. Chemicals at home and at work can increase the risk.
  • Being exposed to the sun or tanning lamps. Ultraviolet light from the sun increases the risk of skin cancer of the head and neck. Ultraviolet light also can come from the lights used in tanning beds.

Prevention

To help prevent head and neck cancers, don't smoke and limit the amount of alcohol you drink. Other steps you can take may depend on the specific type of cancer. Head and neck cancers include cancers that start in the mouth, throat, sinuses and salivary glands.

To lower the risk of head and neck cancer:

Don't use tobacco

If you don't smoke or use other kinds of tobacco, don't start. If you do use tobacco, make a plan to quit. Talk with a healthcare professional about things that can help you quit.

Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all

If you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation. For healthy adults, that means up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men.

Ask about the HPV vaccine

Receiving a vaccination to prevent HPV infection may reduce the risk of HPV-related cancers. Ask a healthcare professional whether the HPV vaccine is right for you.

Protect your head and neck from the sun

Wear a hat with a wide brim to shade your head and neck. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, even on cloudy days. Apply sunscreen generously. Reapply every two hours, or more often if you're swimming or sweating.

Head and neck cancers care at Mayo Clinic

Nov. 16, 2023

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