Head and Neck Cancer: Symptoms and Signs

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 09/2022

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about body changes and other things that can signal a problem that may need medical care. Use the menu to see other pages.

People with head and neck cancer often experience the following symptoms or signs. Symptoms are changes that you can feel in your body. Signs are changes in something measured, like by taking your blood pressure or doing a lab test. Together, symptoms and signs can help describe a medical problem. Sometimes, people with head and neck cancer do not have any of the symptoms and signs described below. Or, the cause of a symptom or sign may be a medical condition that is not cancer.

  • Swelling or a sore that does not heal; this is 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 jaw or tongue

  • Jaw pain

  • Blood in the saliva or phlegm, which is mucus discharged into the mouth from respiratory passages

  • Loosening of teeth

  • Dentures that no longer fit

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Fatigue

  • Ear pain or infection

If you are concerned about any changes you experience, please talk with your doctor. Your doctor will ask how long and how often you’ve been experiencing the symptom(s), in addition to other questions. This is to help figure out the cause of the problem, called a diagnosis.

If cancer is diagnosed, relieving symptoms remains an important part of cancer care and treatment. Managing symptoms may also be called palliative care or supportive care. It is often started soon after diagnosis and continued throughout treatment. Be sure to talk with your health care team about the symptoms you experience, including any new symptoms or a change in symptoms.

The next section in this guide is Diagnosis. It explains what tests may be needed to learn more about the cause of the symptoms. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.