Oncologist-approved cancer information from the American Society of Clinical Oncology
Printer Friendly
Download PDF

Head and Neck Cancer

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 5/2013
Symptoms and Signs

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about body changes and other things that can signal a problem that may need medical care. To see other pages in this guide, use the colored boxes on the right side of your screen, or click “Next” at the bottom.

People with head and neck cancer often experience the following symptoms or signs. Sometimes, people with head and neck cancer do not show any of these symptoms. Or, these symptoms may be caused by a medical condition that is not cancer. If you are concerned about a symptom or sign on this list, please talk with your doctor.

  • Swelling or sore that does not heal (the most common symptom)
  • Red or white patch in the mouth
  • Lump, bump, or mass in the head or neck area (with or without pain)
  • Persistent sore throat
  • Foul mouth odor not explained by hygiene
  • Hoarseness or change in voice
  • Nasal obstruction or persistent nasal congestion
  • Frequent nose bleeds and/or unusual nasal discharge
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Double vision
  • Numbness or weakness of a body part in the head and neck region
  • Pain or difficulty chewing, swallowing, or moving the jaws or tongue
  • Ear and/or jaw pain
  • Blood in the saliva or phlegm (mucus discharged in mouth from respiratory passages)
  • Loosening of teeth
  • Dentures that no longer fit
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue

People who notice any warning signs should talk with a doctor and/or dentist right away. Your doctor will ask you questions about the symptoms you are experiencing to help find out the cause of the problem, called a diagnosis. This may include how long you’ve been experiencing the symptom(s) and how often. When detected early, cancers of the head and neck have a much better chance of cure.

Because many of these symptoms can be caused by other, noncancerous health conditions, as well, it is important to receive regular health and dental screenings. This is particularly important for people who routinely drink alcohol or currently use tobacco products or have used them in the past.

In fact, people who use alcohol or tobacco should receive a general screening examination at least once a year. This is a simple, quick procedure in which the doctor looks in the nose, mouth, and throat for abnormalities and feels for lumps in the neck. If anything unusual is found, the doctor will recommend a more extensive examination using one or more of the procedures mentioned in the Diagnosis section.

If cancer is diagnosed, relieving symptoms and side effects remains an important part of cancer care and treatment. This may also be called symptom management, palliative care, or supportive care. Be sure to talk with your health care team about symptoms you experience, including any new symptoms or a change in symptoms.

Choose “Next” (below, right) to continue reading this guide to learn about what tests and scans you may have to learn more about the cause of your symptoms. Or, use the colored boxes located on the right side of your screen to visit any section.

© 2005-2014 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). All rights reserved worldwide.

Connect With Us: